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Developing an Effective Pre-Race Routine

Successful racing not only requires excellent physical and technical preparation, it also requires strong mental preparation, confidence and a relaxed, clear-headed demeanor.  Over the years I’ve seen far too many talented, hard-training athletes underachieve because of a lack of focus resulting from poor pre-race organization and preparation. What you do in the 24 hours or so immediately before your race can have a very large impact on your performance.  So, let’s take a look at pre-race routines, why they are important and how to develop one that works for you.

So, what’s the big deal about a pre-race plan?

If you ever get the chance to go to a race as an observer rather than a competitor, watch the various racers and what they do as they arrive at the race venue.  You’ll see some that are very clearly laser focused.  You can tell by looking at them that they are on a mission.  Everything they do seems to have a purpose, and they don’t spend a lot of time idly looking around.  Their focus is very clearly on themselves and tasks they’ve planned in the hour or so leading up to the race start.

In contrast, you’ll see others that appear to spend more of their time standing around, chatting with others and looking at the other competitors. Their focus seems to be on anything but the task at hand – preparing mentally for an optimal race effort.

Let’s be clear, one of the best things about racing is the social interaction you get to share with the other racers and the entire SUP community on race day.  However, the time to enjoy that interaction is after the race.  If you care about your performance, it should come first.  There’s lots of time for social interaction after the race is over.

Think, for a moment, of your best workouts.  They generally come when you’ve got a high level of focus and a very clear objective for your workout.  You tend to be more locked in right from the first stroke, allowing for a better warm up, which usually results in a better workout.  You tend to paddle with sound technique, good connection and a relaxed, fluid rhythm right from the first stroke in the first piece, and the confidence you gain from that makes each successive piece higher quality.

On the other hand, we’ve all had workouts that, for whatever reason, we’ve been distracted for.  Whether it’s because of something else really big happening that day, being in a rush, or simply because you’re mentally lazy and let your focus slip, your mindset before the workout isn’t as focused.  You get on your board and start paddling and, rather than feeling locked in from stoke one, you struggle to find connection, rhythm and a consistent motion.  Your warm up is spent trying to just find a few good strokes rather than consolidate a really good rhythm, sharpen your focus in preparation for the first piece, and firm up your commitment to put out the highest quality effort possible in the workout ahead.  Not surprisingly, this workout ends up being disappointing.

I ask you, if this happens in workouts, what makes you think it isn’t going to happen in a race?  Races require an even higher level of sharpness and precision in your paddling and an even greater commitment to quality effort.  Unlike workouts, there’s no time in a race to work your way into a good connection or rhythm.  You need both right from stroke one. If our experience in training should teach us anything, it is that the margin for error in our focus and mental preparation is minimal on race day.  If you’re going to maximize your performance, you need everything firing on all cylinders right from the first stroke.

In order to find the level of focus required to do this, you need to be mentally ready and you can’t leave anything to chance.  You can control whether you have the level of mental preparation necessary, but you have to make an effort to do so.  You have to know yourself, what helps you focus, and what hinders it.  You have to establish a pattern of proven pre-race behaviours that result in an optimal mental state for racing.  You can’t afford to drift through a series of mindless, random, actions in the hours before your race.  You simply won’t be as ready.

Developing your pre-race plan

 We’re all different.  We think differently and our bodies respond differently to the stresses associated with racing.  While an effective pre-race plan is based on some sound principles that are pretty universal, the nature of one paddler’s perfect pre-race plan is going to be different than another’s.  These are highly personalized things.

Finding the optimal pre-race plan is the result of some experimentation that occurs over time. You can learn from someone else’s but you can’t expect to copy it.  You can’t just come up with one out of thin air and expect it to check all the boxes perfectly.  Obviously, there is a starting point for your plan, but expect to have to refine your plan from race to race as you learn from your experiences.

If you’re clever about it, you can use certain workouts to simulate races and approach them using your pre-race plan.  This works great with those high intensity, race quality, sessions you do when your program intensifies.  Using your pre-race plan for these sessions provides you with more opportunities to test it, to experiment, and learn – and they’re stress free.  You can try something different without any risk of compromising an important performance if you experiment with your plan in a training session.  You’re more likely to develop a really effective pre-race plan quickly by experimenting with one in these high intensity training sessions.

Obviously, you’ve got to start somewhere in developing your pre-race plan.  So, let’s look at some of the things you need to consider:

24 hours before the race:

  • Travel. Travel for out of town races is a huge stressor and, depending on the type of travel and duration, can leave you tired and tight.  Try to determine when the best time for you to travel is in terms of your physical and mental response.  Is it the day before or two days before?  Do you do better when you arrive to the race venue in the morning or the evening?  For local races, determine how early you like to get to the venue.  How much time do you want on site before the race start?
  • Post-travel activity. Determine what you need to do to loosen up and get the blood flowing after traveling.  If you arrive the day before, what time do you want to do your activity?  What type of activity is it?  How long does it last and what are the specifics?  If you arrive to the race venue the morning of the race, what do you do when getting out of the car?  Does it make a difference how long you’ve been in the car for?
  • Pre-race paddle. Paddling the day before the race at the race venue is a great idea.  It helps you loosen up and sharpen a little.  It also provides you with a chance to inspect part of the course. You shouldn’t stay out on the water for too long.  Try getting off the water as soon as you start to feel really good.
  • Accommodations. What is your preferred type of accommodation for out of town races?  What leaves you feeling most comfortable and least stressed?
  • Meals. Many athletes have preferred pre-race meals, whether we’re talking about the night before or the morning of.  This is something that should be easy to determine from training.  What foods and what time you’re consuming them leave you feeling best prepared for the highest quality efforts?  If possible, you’ll probably want to replicate that pre-race.
  • Rest. How much sleep do you need pre-race?  What time should you go to bed?  Again, this information should be easily gleaned from training.  You’ve got ample opportunity to experiment in this regard.

 Race morning

  • What time do you get up? Are you a late riser in training or an early riser?  How long do you need before your race to get everything you need to get done in a relaxed, stress free way?
  • Breakfast. What’s your optimal pre-race meal and how long before go-time do you consume it?  Is a coffee part of it?
  • In-race nutrition/hydration. What is your nutrition plan for the race?  Do you prepare it the night before or do you do it race morning?  Make sure you have everything packed and ready to take to the course.
  • What are you wearing to race in? This obviously depends on conditions.  You should have a few options that you feel most comfortable in ready to go on race morning.
  • What time do you want to arrive at the venue? Do you want to be there really early or are you better focused if you’re not hanging around the venue for too long before the start?  You need to allow time to set up your board (or check your set up if you did it the night before), do your optimal pre-race warm up, attend the racer’s meeting, go to the washroom (perhaps multiple times) and get to the starting line.


Of course, these are just examples of some of the things you’ll need to consider.  This list is far from exhaustive.  As you begin to experiment in building your pre-race plan you will undoubtedly add to the list of things mentioned above.

The point is, you want to consider all of these sorts of things so that on race morning you’re not debating with yourself about what you should have for breakfast, what time you should leave for the course or what you should do for your warm up.  Uncertainty about these things affects both your focus and your confidence. Having a plan which is almost like a timed script to follow gives you something to focus on, and narrowing your focus on it before the race will help you get into a mindset that should help you be more focused on the water.  Furthermore, having a plan for the hours and minutes immediately before the race keeps you focused on you and keeps you from watching the other competitors.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be focused on what you are doing and not on the other racers.  When you get on the water, if you’re going to race with a great connection and rhythm, you need to be focused exclusively on yourself.  If your mind is wandering to the other competitors if will negatively impact your ability to optimize your performance.  Ensuring that your time spent pre-race on land is focused on yourself makes it easier to find that same focus on the water.

Flexibility is crucial

 It may seem like a paradox, but as important as having a pre-race plan is, it is equally important to be flexible.  Why have a plan if you might have to change it before the race?

Having a plan is vital, for all the reasons provide above.  But being prepared to change your plan as needed is something that you need to be prepared for.  The reality is, there are so many things that can happen at races that are beyond your control that the best laid plans can become irrelevant very quickly.  When this happens, as it invariably will at some point, will you be able to adjust and adapt, shift gears seamlessly, and maintain your optimal race focus?  Or, will it totally destroy your focus, leaving you stressed and panicked because your plan is no longer appropriate?

You need to be prepared to roll with the punches and be flexible.  I learned this a long time ago when I was a member of the Canadian Canoe Team traveling in a small group for races in the East Bloc.  We were totally at the mercy of the race organizers.  We had no say in our accommodations, the food we were provided at the hotel or the course, the ground transport to or from the course, and in some cases, even the quality of the boats we had to race in.  Things were often so unpredictable that being too attached to a “plan” would have left me totally unprepared to race optimally.  Fortunately, I learned pretty quickly to roll with it all and even considered it a fun challenge to overcome everything and still race well. I had some of my best ever races in the 1980s in Communist dumps like East Germany, Bulgaria, and Moscow.

One particular story comes to mind.  In Brandenburg, East Germany, in 1982, we were a small team of four athletes and a coach.  The organizers put us in an apartment in one of those massive workers’ flats buildings that we’ve all seen in photos or documentaries.  We had no dedicated ground transport and had to wait for a regatta shuttle to pick us up each morning to take us to the race course or to meals.  Of course, on race day, it didn’t show up.  We waited and waited until, finally, our interpreter ran out into the street and commandeered a small Trabant and its driver, ordering him to take the two of us who were racing in the first races of the day to the course.  I can still remember having to hold my paddle outside the car window while the driver careened around on the bumpy cobblestone streets on the way to the course because it wouldn’t fit inside the car.

These adventures would have broken athletes without the confidence to be flexible and quickly readjust pre-race plans on the fly.  So, because you’ll inevitably encounter a screw-up at some point, you’ll want to have a plan for race day but not be too attached to it.  I’d suggest that once you have a plan that you like, you practice changing it and doing something different, whether in training or for races that aren’t so important, so that if you ever have to change your plans quickly the morning of a really important race you’ll be comfortable doing it.


Racing is a fun process that is about much more than the time spent battling it out on the water.  Unfortunately, you can take yourself out of contention if you don’t handle the pre-race process well.  Handling it well isn’t that hard and certainly isn’t something that you can’t learn to do better.  Handling it well can give you a huge advantage over other competitors because, the truth is, all but the most experienced racers could probably do things a little better on race day.

Here’s hoping some of the things discussed here help you develop a pre-race routine that works for you and helps you be optimally prepared to put out the highest quality efforts when they’re needed most.  Developing a routine that does this is a process that takes time and requires some learning but, like everything else in this sport, it can be a fun challenge.  So, embrace the process and have fun with it!

Happy paddling!





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