Mike's Mailbag: High Competition

Mike's Mailbag: High Competition

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, January 23, 2017

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com

Dear Mike, 

In a few months, I will be going to my first high altitude meet. This really scares me. It is also my first indoor pool experience. I've heard stories about how swimmers can't breathe as well when they race, or they seem to add time. This is supposed to be a good meet for me, and I really wish it wasn't at this location. 

I'm worried if I will still be able to go best times in an indoor pool with a 4,700 feet elevation. Should I be worried? 

Scared Swimmer


Hey Scared Swimmer,

Don’t be scared — especially about your first indoor pool experience. As a swimmer who grew up pretty muchonly competing indoors, I can tell you there are major advantages. Ceilings for backstroke (following a line in the ceiling to prevent that zig-zagging that sometimes happens in outdoor pools during backstroke). Controlled environment and air temperature. Controlled weather. No blinding sunshine or harmful UV rays. 

But your point about altitude is valid. 4,700 is high enough where you might notice a difference, especially when sprinting. However, there are a few things you can do now to minimize altitude’s effect.

First, if you can afford to, and if this meet is hugely important to you, try getting to the area a day or two in advance. When you move to higher altitude areas, the body needs adjustment time. When you arrive, just take it easy and go for a few walks. You won’t be fully acclimated — it takes the body up to several weeks to fully acclimate to a new altitude level — but you can at least gradually introduce the altitude to your body. 

Second, before you go to the meet, stay hydrated. While you’re there, make sure you drink plenty of liquids. Your body will dehydrate quicker at a higher altitude. Follow all the other regular guidelines — get plenty of sleep and eat right — but pay particular attention to your hydration levels. 

Several times throughout my swim career, I’ve either trained or sprinted at higher altitudes. I won’t lie to you: It can be difficult. You should be careful and monitor your body. Make sure you don’t do anything too strenuous too quickly, and if you can, give yourself a day or two to adjust (or more). When you arrive, don’t immediately begin to sprint. Take a nice easy warm-up so your body can know, “Hey, this is a different feeling and place.” I’m not sure if this area is nearby, but if it is, maybe your coach can schedule a training trip at this higher altitude place. Just so you know what to expect. Your heart rate will increase as your body tries to pull in more oxygen. It can definitely feel different than normal. 

That said, don’t stress too much, because you cannot control the altitude of an upcoming meet. Just like no one else can, either. All your competitors will be in the same environment and same situation. If this is the only opportunity you have to get a personal best time that you absolutely need, and if you have the option, I would consider the possibility of either scheduling another meet a week later in somewhere that wasn’t so high, or competing somewhere else. Just because, from talking with other swimmers and from my own personal experience, it can be more difficult to perform the higher up you go. 

Finally, I would say this: If this upcoming swim meet is your only shot to qualify for a particular life-changing meet (like, your last chance to qualify for a national championship) and there will be no other meets coming up, then maybe consider a different venue. But if that’s not the case, try not to fret too much, go to the meet, and use this as a learning experience. This likely won’t be the last time you compete at higher altitude. If you’re younger, and you have more swimming on the horizon, learn from this experience and grow from it. Learn how to adapt and compete under unsavory circumstances, and learn how to really care for your body when environment is different than what you’re used to. 

Remember how I said I grew up competing in indoor pools? Well, once a year, our big championship meet was outside. I’ll admit: It took me a while to adjust to the sun, the sky, the wind, the rain, the UV rays, the fluctuating temperatures. But I did learn and I did adjust and eventually I learned how to compete no matter where the pool was located. 

Be patient, be fearless, and be mindful. Monitor your body, ease into it, and learn. You’ll become a better swimmer because of this experience — not worse.

I hope this helps. 


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