By Mark Johnston
Racing in practice is an important training tool to prepare you for meets
The touch pads are in and the scoreboard is lit. After our typical meet warm-up, Rich Abrahams and I are ready to race a 50 butterfly. Chris O’Sullivan is at the microphone and calls, “Swimmers up,” as we step up onto the blocks. My wife Dana, Heide Crino, and Bill Abbott are behind the blocks, waiting their turn, and they give us an encouraging cheer. Chris commands, “Take your mark,” and HONK, we’re off.
It’s just a 50 fly, down-and-back, as fast as we can go. We finish in a virtual dead heat, but I can see from the Colorado Timing System scoreboard that Rich, at 65 years old, has out-touched me at 27.03 to my 27.18. It’s not the first time, nor the last time, that Rich will beat me today—in practice.
Without any warm-down, I scramble out of the water to run the starting system. Next up is Heide vs. Dana, in a 50 backstroke. It’s another even pairing and close race. Next up, Bill swimming a 50 fly versus Chris swimming a 50 backstroke. “Take your mark, HONK.” Rich and I are the cheerleaders and observers.
On a 10-minute interval, Rich and I resume our positions at the starting blocks. This time, we’re racing a 100 IM, an event where I get the better of Rich, 1:04.53 to 1:08.60. Our practice group continues through the 10-minute send-off rotation six more times that day, and Rich beats me twice more.
The group discusses each race as soon as it’s finished: “Dude, you had an awesome start!” Or, “I hate to tell you, I think you jumped.” We’re watching for starts, underwaters, turns, kicks, finishes, or anything observable from the pool’s edge. The constructive feedback is wonderful.
When we finally get to meet day a few weeks later, we know what we’re doing. Our starts are crisp, our turns are quick, and our finishes are strong. Additionally, the camaraderie of watching our fellow racers is special, as we are all vested in each other’s performances.
Many athletes fear competition. In Masters Swimming, the “fitness swimmer” is commonly known as someone who has no desire to participate in meets. I get a kick out of coaching these swimmers, and I find it particularly challenging to coax them into the competitive waters. Some of the biggest on-deck smiles I’ve seen have come from those who have overcome those fears and embraced racing.
After an average high school swimming career and then 25 years away from the sport, I dived into my first Masters swim meet in 2004. In the stands between races, I wasn’t certain if my heart was racing a million miles an hour or if it had actually stopped. I probably should have been breathing into a paper bag, and I couldn’t believe how nervous I was. But after that first meet, things got better. I became more comfortable racing, set some goals, and have been competing ever since. I love it!
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that you must practice racing. It’s important to use the starting blocks on a regular basis and perform turns at race speed.
In 2013, Dana and I moved away from that super practice group in Denver to a small town in Northwest Montana. Although the state has several fast swimmers, they are spread out and several hours away.
Thankfully, I still have a great practice partner to race: my wife. Her 75-yard free time is close to my 100-yard time, so at the end of practice, one of us will head to the other end of the pool for a head-to-head race. Some days, she’ll get the benefit of the starting blocks. We come up with various handicaps to make our races close; fins, head starts, varying strokes, etc. Except for true recovery days, we try to race something at the end of each practice. It keeps us sharp, motivated, and when we get to meet day, it’s like we’ve been there before.
Mark Johnston has been a full-time swim coach (age group, high school and Masters) since 2008. For the past three years, he’s been providing the General Workouts on the U.S. Masters Swimming Online Coaching Forum. He has recorded 18 individual and 20 relay USMS Top Ten times and been a part of three USMS All-American relays.