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The ideal warm-up for swimmers

January 21st, 2012

What type of warm-up optimizes swim performance? A new study from the University of Alabama, just posted in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, ran a simple test with 16 NCAA swimmers. Each of them performed three 50-yard sprints, on separate days, with three different warm-ups:

  1. No warm-up.
  2. A short warm-up consisting of 50 yards of 40% of max effort followed by 50 yards at 90% of max effort.
  3. The swimmer’s individual usual warm-up, which averaged a total of about 1,300 metres for the group.

The results:

Mean 50-yd time was significantly faster (p = 0.01) following regular WU (24.95 ± 1.53 sec) when compared to short WU (25.26 ± 1.61 sec).

But take a look at the individual results for the three conditions:

The researchers raise a very, very important point that is often neglected in sports studies:

It is important to note that swimmers compete individually and not as a “group mean”. Therefore, for swimming, it is important competitively to determine how each individual swimmer responds to different warm-ups.

So yes, the “normal” warm-up was indeed best on average. But 19% of the swimmers actually had their best time after the short warm-up, and 37% had their best time after no warm-up at all, compared to a relatively modest 44% — less than half! — who performed best after the regular warm-up.

Now, let’s not get carried away with this result. This was a small study, and the swimmers only did one 50-yard swim under each condition. It’s unlikely that no warm-up at all is really optimal. But it’s certainly worth investigating whether a shorter warm-up might do just as well, particularly for swimmers competing in multiple rounds of multiple events over a short period of time. And more generally, athletes and coaches should be open to the idea that different athletes respond differently to routines like warm-up. Maybe there’s an athlete in your group who would do better with an unorthodox warm-up. It’s worth doing some experimentation.