There is always a moment when your legs turn to jelly and the first few steps on land cause you to stumble. If you can anticipate this feeling and brace your lower body upon exiting the water, you will avoid embarrassing face-plants in the sand and lost time while you struggle with disorientation and loss of balance.
The definition of tapering is scaling back your workouts to fully recover training-fatigued muscles in preparation for a race. Tapering can be considered the reward for a season of commitment; it's the icing on the cake.
Oddly enough, some swimmers and triathletes avoid tapering before a major race because they fear they'll fall out of shape. They don't trust themselves enough to take it easy for a few weeks, and as a result they race tired.
Elite swimmers taper about four weeks before a major event, and this period can be extended up to six weeks. For an endurance athlete, cutting swimming yardage by half in the weeks before a major event will not result in being out of shape. It will allow severely broken down muscles to heal and recuperate while keeping them conditioned with light training.
Come race day, the snap in your muscles that only comes with a few weeks of rest will guarantee peak performance. So don't be afraid to reward yourself with a few weeks of rest.
It may sound trite, but getting enough sleep is critical to being faster in an important race. Often, we get six to seven hours of sleep a night during the season and are so accustomed to this amount that our bodies learn to function even if it's not enough rest time. As a consequence, we gradually break down our bodies so that our athletic performance turns duller and slower without our even noticing.
With today's busy world, it may be impossible to consistently get the recommended eight hours, but for your taper (at least a week before your big event) you should try to sleep eight hours.
The first few nights may be difficult and you may be restless. Then, for a few mornings you may even feel dull in the senses and sluggish. This is a sign that your body is recovering and you are getting enough sleep! As your clock resets, by race day you should be well-rested enough to feel alert and full of that snap that you may not have felt in a while due to long-term fatigue.
Also, remember that supplementing your taper with a few fast sprints (point No. 2) during this time will help keep your body alert and prevent sleep-induced sluggishness.
Anticipate your race by picturing it inside your head in the days leading up to competition. Imagine what it will feel like to dive off the blocks or hear the gun go off at the waters edge, and replay the race in your head.
Elite swimmers practice visualizing techniques to the point where they can close their eyes and time themselves in an imaginary race to within 1/10 of a second of their goal time!
Know every stroke you take before you take it. The more familiar you become with the length of the swim and the segments that it consists of, the better prepared you will be to swim your best race.
Also, anticipate any fears you may have (losing your goggles, swimming off course) and visualize coping with such mishaps. Should anything occur during the race, you will know what to do.
10. Carbo-Load the Right Way!
One of the biggest myths about endurance racing is that an athlete can effectively carbo-load in one or two meals immediately prior to the race. While there is certainly nothing wrong with having a healthy plate of pasta the night before your big event, it probably won't have any noticeable effect on your endurance the following morning.
Rather, attempt to increase your carbohydrate intake in the week before your race, and do so gradually. Granted, your body stores unused carbohydrates as "fat" but you won't gain any weight if you eat more carbs for a week (you will, however, allow your body ample time to break down those complex carbs and store them as extra energy).
Again, the tips above should serve as a checklist of things you ought to be doing to improve your speed. You may already be doing eight of them automatically, but those remaining two items could be the difference between a personal best and a disappointing performance.
A former swimmer at Stanford University, Alex Kostich has stayed strong in the sport at the elite level even while maintaining a day job. The three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist still competes in—and wins—numerous open-water races around the world each year, as well as competing in the occasional triathlon and running race.