In his 20-year swimming career, Peter Vanderkaay experienced a great deal of success. Peter won championships at every level of competition, including NCAA Championships at the University of Michigan, four victories at the World Championships, and gold medals at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.
Now retired from competitive swimming, Peter puts considerable effort into helping inner-city children learn to swim through the Metro Detroit YMCA’s “Detroit Swims” program, and several of those children have gone on to become competitive swimmers in their own right.
For any young swimmers looking to achieve greatness in the water, here are Peter’s five key tips for how to improve in-water performance.
1. Don’t Overthink Your Races
On race day, young swimmers often go over each detail of a race over and over again until it consumes them. However, Peter says this is a huge mistake.
“Don’t overthink it,” Peter advises. “Don’t overanalyze the race. When I’m at a meet, I would talk to coaches and teammates to relax and take my mind off things. Then, when it was time to race, I would just try my best. If you overanalyze the race for too long, you can completely take yourself out of it mentally.”
2. Don't Get Distracted By Supplements
Many young athletes turn to supplements like creatine in order to gain an advantage over the competition. For most swimmers, Peter thinks this is just a distraction.
“Supplements tend to have a placebo effect that makes people think they’re performing well because of what they’re taking,” Peter said. “I think if you’re eating healthy and balanced, you’re just as good as the guy next to you on the block, and you haven’t spent as much money as him. A lot of it is in your head. People get so caught up and distracted by what they’re taking and whether or not they’re taking it at the right time that they lose track of the things that matter most – technique and training.”
3. Do Some Strength Training... When The Time Is Right
As a freshman at the University of Michigan, Peter gained 35 pounds of muscle and transformed himself into a world-class swimmer. He cautions that no one should risk stunting their growth by trying to lift too heavy too early, but also believes adding muscle was a clear aid to his performance.
“I think as a middle distance swimmer, the weight training gave me added muscle, and it meant that I could hold faster times for longer,” Peter said. “It wasn’t even that my endurance was better, but it was more than I could take races out faster and just maintain that top speed all the way through the race.”
4. Eat To Feel Good, Not Just To Look Good
Until he arrived at the University of Michigan, Peter’s coaches never focused much on what he was eating. Once he started to audit what he ate, Peter noticed himself getting faster.
“I needed to have the willpower to cut out things that were easy and tasted good, but that weren’t necessarily helping me in the pool,” Peter admitted. “I could eat a whole pizza, and I’d still look the same because I was burning off the calories, but I wouldn’t feel as good as if I’d eaten something that was balanced and healthy. There was no one standing over my shoulder, though, so it was up to me. I really made a conscious effort to cut the bad stuff out, because I knew I would feel better when I trained.“
5. Train In The Water As Much As Possible
When it comes to being successful in swimming, there are many paths to the top, but Peter insists that consistent, year-round, in-water training has made successes out of more swimmers than any other training tactic.
“There are always outliers out there, and people that swim six months out of the year that are really fast. There are even people in the Olympics that didn’t start swimming until they were in high school. But, for the most part, the people in the sport that are successful are the people that made an effort to swim year round.”
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