by Hilary Gehman

Hilary Gehman is an Olympian and former head women’s coach at Cornell who is currently an associate at Sparks Consulting. She will be on the keynote panel at SDCC’s Crews to College Event.

There is no magical race preparation ritual that will lead to an open water win over your competitors. The chance to fine tune your pre-race rituals lies in erg tests, seat racing, scrimmages, and the events leading up to your championship race.

Here are a 5 keys to consider when preparing for the big race:


You should be awake at least 3 hours prior to your race start time. The earlier the race, the more crucial it is for your body to be awake! I remember setting my alarm for 4:00 a.m. for some of the National Selection Regattas (NSR’s) and thinking “this is crazy,” but by the time the race came around, I felt energized and fully prepared. Race times later in the day don’t require an early morning wake-up, but there is a different level of preparation that should include some light activity in the morning.


Preparing for an erg test or a race in the single is easier to control since it’s just you, but if you are in a team boat, your race warm-up on the water may not be sufficient for you individually. If you have ever done race pieces and gone faster on the second piece, then you probably weren’t warmed up enough for the workout.

When I was racing in the U.S. women’s quad, there were times the lactic acid would almost paralyze me during the race. I needed and wanted more warm-up than my teammates, so after consulting with my coach, I experimented. At the Lucerne World Cup one year, I did an all out 1500 meter piece on the erg about 45 minutes before the semi-final, so I could build up some lactic acid and it wouldn’t be such a shock to my system during the race. The result for me was a more relaxed and confident race. After that, I always did more than my teammates on land to warm-up.


You want to visualize your race strategies. Yes, plural. You’ve got to be prepared for multiple race scenarios because “win by open water” or “destroy my 2K time by 10 seconds” doesn’t always work.

Sit down and write out your Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C strategies and then read them aloud, or have your coxswain review them. There is your number one plan, what you fight for, but if it is just not working, then what is your backup plan? That becomes your new plan you fight for. Visualize Plan A and all of its contingencies so every stroke is purposeful, no matter how the race unfolds.


Eat a healthy, balanced meal the night before that doesn’t deviate from what you normally eat. If you don’t like spaghetti, then don’t eat pasta for your pre-race meal. The food you eat the day of the race is a little more tricky since each person has a different level of tolerance for how much and what to eat and how quickly the food will be digested. I firmly believe you should eat something before your race – do not race on an empty stomach – but this might take practice.

In high school, I never ate breakfast before my cross country ski races, because I felt that if I had any food in my stomach it would make me sick. Not eating was a huge mistake. Over time, I incorporated a little bit more food (a cracker, some yogurt, a bite of banana), so that I trained my body (and mind) to tolerate food. It got to the point where I saw it as a sign of good luck if I burped banana right before a race.


Or try to. It’s okay if you lie in bed awake with some nerves the night before your race, but lie in bed – don’t watch tv or surf the net or play games on your phone. Let the nerves happen while you are attempting to sleep. This is a good opportunity to visualize your race strategies. Getting a good night’s sleep should be a habit, not something you do only before races.

If you can make those 5 keys good habits, then you are well on your way to being prepared to hear: Attention, GO!

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