How to Warm Up for Swimming
An effective warm-up is the key to productive workouts, successful main sets, and setting personal best times at swim meets. Whether you’re warming up at a competition or practice, use your warm-up to do two things: turn on your body’s energy systems, and mentally prepare for what will follow.
Warming Up: Quality vs Quantity
A warm-up is not defined by distance or minutes, but rather by what kind of swimming you do and, to a certain extent, how you feel. When your body is warmed up, you will be able to change swimming speeds effortlessly. Some days you will need far fewer laps to warm up than on other days, when you may swim for an hour and still feel sluggish trying to break into a sprint.
The amount of swimming it takes to warm up depends on a number of variables, both internal and external: from where you are in your training cycle, to how much sleep you’ve been getting, to what you’ve eaten, to the water temperature, to the time of day. Age plays a role too. While most kids warm up quickly, older athletes tend to need a longer, more gradual warm-up.
Getting to the pool on time for practice and competition is important, and not just because every lap of warm-up counts. Rushing around causes stress (both mental and physical) that can be detrimental to athletic performance. If you are running late, the best thing to do is accept it, relax, and just start swimming easy, as if you were on time. Panicky, rushed swimming won’t get you those minutes back, and will only interfere with an effective warm-up.
When warming up for a race, focus on something you know you can do well. If you focus on a weakness, you may find yourself becoming frustrated and tense. Remember that your meet warm-up is about more than just physical preparation. Use your meet warm-up to build confidence and mentally prepare for competition.
Start every warm-up gently, with some easy swimming. There is a difference between easy swimming and lazy swimming. Easy swimming is thoughtful and has good technique, while lazy swimming is mindless and sloppy. Because it’s impossible to think of everything at once, try choosing one aspect of your stroke to focus on during the first few laps of your warm-up. For example, think about the timing of your breaths, the position of your hips in the water, or achieving your optimal stroke count. Find out which skills come naturally, which focus points frustrate you mentally, and what motivates and excites you about swimming.
Forget about trying to stay ahead of the person behind you, or beating the swimmer in the next lane. If you start with relaxed technique, the speed will come later.
By relaxing and getting drawn into perfecting the details of your technique, you may suddenly discover yourself flying across the pool without even trying. This is “easy speed,” perhaps the most important key to fast swimming! Mentally bookmark what you were thinking about when you discovered it. See how long you can maintain easy speed.
How do you find easy speed? For starters, think about swimming with precise movements and relaxing on the recovery part of each stroke. It also helps if you focus more on tempo—the speed of your arms through the water—than on power or “pulling more water.”
Easy speed tends to be a bit like those pixelated 3D posters: if you look right at it, the image vanishes. In the pool, if you are thinking only about going fast, your easy speed will remain elusive and you’ll probably end up fighting the water. But if you blur your mental focus, your easy speed will emerge, almost magically.
Once you have done some easy-speed laps, you should discover that you literally feel warm. (Warm-up increases your heart rate, core temperature, and blood flow to your muscles.) You’re almost ready to test-fire your top-end speed. First, however, you need to build into it a few times. Try to carry good technique into your speed and make sure your body is ready to go fast. If you have found easy speed, try to maintain it throughout this step and the next. Here’s one way to build into your top-end speed.
Don’t be afraid to swim hard in warm-up. Your body needs that kind of fast, strong effort to turn on all your energy systems. The first effort of the day often feels terrible. But the next time you swim hard you will usually feel much better and smoother. If you are waiting for your race or the main set to swim hard, you’re not giving your body a chance to perform at its best.
Swim four 25s (or 50s, if you are a more proficient swimmer) of freestyle in which you build your speed. Start the first lap at about 50% of your maximum effort and build to about 80%. Rest briefly between efforts. The next effort should begin a little faster than the first and build to about 90% of your maximum speed. On the next one, begin even a little faster than the previous one and build to your absolute maximum speed in the last 10 meters. For the last one, swim the entire effort virtually all-out.
By the end of your build efforts, you should be breathing hard. Immediately after your build freestyle laps, swim some easy laps of technique-focused recovery.
Once you’ve elevated your heart rate with your build freestyle swims, you’re ready to test-fire your race systems. When your heart rate has recovered from your build 25s (or 50s), see if you can go from recovery pace to all-out sprint pace instantaneously mid-pool.
If you cannot change speeds quickly, you may just need more warm-up time. Swim a few more laps focused on technique, keeping your speed (and heart rate) fairly high. Believe it or not, you can have great swims even on days when everything feels “off.” Before your race, get in a second warm-up, and you might discover that it's much easier to change speeds (and after only a few laps).
Some athletes will break into a sprint 10 meters from the wall and carry that speed through their flip turn. If the transition from easy to fast swimming felt natural and not forced, your warm-up is almost over. If you are a distance swimmer, you will need to do some pace work—a couple of laps at the pace you want to swim in your race—before moving on to the next step.
Practice at least one start during warm-up. Remember that the beginning of your race is more than just a dive from the blocks. In your warm-up starts, you want to leave the blocks quickly, do quality underwater work, get a clean breakout, and do 4 to 10 strokes just the way you will do them in a race.
If you’re warming up for a sprint event, you’ll want to go all-out for about half a lap. If you’re practicing the start of a distance race, swim the whole lap at your race pace. When you are done with your start(s), make sure you get a good cool down, at least 200 yards or meters. Just as you did in the beginning of your warm-up, focus on staying relaxed and swimming with good technique.
Warming Up Is Important
Keep in mind that warm-up is more than just swimming a certain distance. Warm-up is a physical and mental process that can vary immensely from person to person. Experiment with your warm-ups and find out what works best for you.