SwimmingHow NCAA Champ Max McHugh Prepares For Big Race

How NCAA Champ Max McHugh Prepares For Big Race

Before the Beep: How NCAA Champion Max McHugh Prepares For a Big Race

When the University of Minnesota’s Max McHugh was unanimously named the 2021 Big Ten Swimmer of the Year, nobody batted an eye. The then college junior had more than earned the title by sweeping NCAA titles in both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke events with times of 50.18 and 1:49.02.

McHugh’s accomplishment was more than a personal one. It was the first time since 1964 that Minnesota captured a men’s swimming title, and the first NCAA title for all of Minnesota men’s sports since 1996.

“Winning at NCAAs has always been a goal of mine ever since high school,” said McHugh. “I was honored to win for Minnesota and for my family. Afterward, I felt like all the sacrifices I made had finally paid off.”

Those sacrifices are something every swimmer feels – from the strict training and nutrition regimes, to the mental focus every race requires.

“Swimming is just as much mental as physical,” McHugh said. “How someone approaches a meet or a race is so important, and it is something I work on every chance I get.”

The Golden Gopher senior (and team captain) took the time to talk to Swimming World Magazine about his typical pre-race routines and his evolving view of mental preparation while on the national stage.


The night before a big meet – or even a dual meet – McHugh typically enjoys a movie or video games to keep his mind off things.

“I love to be around my teammates and enjoy time with them before the meet,” he said. “I will do my typical recovery on YouTube and make sure to eat and sleep well, but mentally I tend to keep my mind off the meet.”

McHugh admits that there is no special ritual or routine he has except making sure that he eats, sleeps and hydrates well before any competition. His go-to food is often Chipotle because it is so convenient and familiar.


The day of a big race, McHugh does a very brief wakeup swim. McHugh admits that it’s nothing special, just the typical warmup his Gopher teammates do before each practice, in addition to a quick dryland stretch. But several hours later, it’s “GO time.”

“I like to head to the pool a little bit earlier than most. This will be about two hours before the time of my swim,” said McHugh. “I will listen to music, stretch a bit, talk to some teammates or other swimmers, and then finally get in the water to do my typical meet warm-up.”

In the pool during warmup, McHugh isn’t looking to find that magical “feeling” many swimmers describe when training and taper hit together perfectly. Instead, McHugh notes the confidence he possesses in his training and preparation.

“If I have done everything in my power to feel prepared, that is the best feeling,” he said

Ready Room

Many athletes’ styles differ in the ready room. If an outside observer looked in, they would likely see several athletes chatting with their competitors, someone zoned in listening to music, a few athletes stretching and possibly someone lying on the ground in a complete visualization trance. McHugh prefers a combination of types: music and visualization.

“I like to listen to music and visualize my race,” he said. “I usually stick to myself and stay warm and comfortable while others do their own routines.”

McHugh’s preferred musical artist in the ready room is Taylor Swift, who he jams out to while sipping on his water bottle. After a quick “good luck” to his competitors, he heads out the door to prepare behind the blocks.

Behind the Blocks

The focus McHugh channels in the ready room through music and visualization transfers seamlessly as he approaches the pool. His mind sometimes doesn’t even register the surroundings.

“I am not sure if I have any thoughts when it comes to being behind the blocks,” McHugh said. “If the meet is big enough, I almost always am so focused that I don’t even realize they called my name.”

Once he’s behind the blocks, McHugh splashes water up from the pool. He thinks about his focuses during the race while feeding off the energy of the crowd. If his family is at the meet, he’ll look up at them as well as his teammates for more positive energy. In the pool, McHugh sticks to his game plan. Unless he is at a large-scale competition, racing for a certain place, his main focus in the pool is achieving a specific goal time.

“I tend to swim my own race because I almost always focus on getting a certain time,” said McHugh. “In certain races like the Olympic Trials or NCAAs, I think there is a strategy to feed off of others, but only in certain scenarios.”

Over the years, McHugh has evolved from YMCA national champion to Wisconsin state high school champion and national high school public record holder (100 breast, 51.62) to NCAA champion. Along the way, his philosophy on mental preparation has also evolved.

“My philosophy has matured over the years, and I have developed a routine that works for me,” said McHugh. “I like to feel prepared and mentally ready just as much as I am physically ready for a race. I think the human mind can do amazing things, and keeping that in the back of my mind has gotten me through some of my most difficult races.”

As for the next generation of swimmers looking to achieve their own goal of becoming an NCAA champion, McHugh advises them to try and have fun.

“Try to have fun and make the most of a situation, regardless of how big or small it is,” he said. “I swim because I like the sport and like the competition, and keeping that in perspective has played an integral part in my success so far.”

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