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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.

  1. January 22nd, 2012 at 00:24 | #1

    Is it significant, I wonder, that the event chosen for the test is the shortest in most meet programs? Maybe I’m a little naive about this, but would the same swimmer perhaps need a different “optimal” warm-up for different events? (Certainly for different strokes…)

  2. Dan
    January 22nd, 2012 at 03:35 | #2

    I see lots of studies on how to warm up on race day. I see far fewer studies on what types of warm ups cause the most improvement during those many training days.

  3. Cheryl
    January 22nd, 2012 at 09:13 | #3

    Hi Alex, could you direct me to the actual paper? Thanks

  4. BobsYourUncle
    January 22nd, 2012 at 21:27 | #4

    Great e.g. of one size fits none. Reading way too much between the lines (my hobby)the top 9 best performances coming from RW, SW, NW are 56%, 33%, 11%, whereas the bottom 8 best perfs, which are distinctly slower, come from RW, SW, NW of 38%, 12%, 50%. Maybe the slow performers simply had less miles in the pool and the RW is too much or the SW too intense? Reminds me of Bannister being the best single-race miler of his time, but underperforming in the Olympics due to lack of mileage leaving him unprepared for 3 heats. Wonder what his warmup was compared to the 100miles/wk types.

    I’ve PBd (5k-marathon) with both short and long warmups, performance seemed to be more stongly associated with the state of being “on” that day, and the volume of my discomfort buffer. The common warmup elements were simply to get warm, and get some neuro-muscular stim at or near race pace. I’ve dropped fast strides, and recently added multi-planer skipping drills. Who knows, maybe i would have PBd with zero warmup. In retrospect i wish i’d tracked my warmups vs performance over the many years, and i hope that coaches can help with this, custom fitting each athletes warmup…thanks for the brain warmup Alex!

  5. January 23rd, 2012 at 15:21 | #5

    From my own experience, I find that I perform better after a relatively short warm-up. Say, 100 to 200 yards of easy swimming.
    Although it is worth saying that I’ve only been swimming for 1,5 years which is also an important factor concerning this issue.

  6. MD
    January 23rd, 2012 at 22:21 | #6

    I gather from what you are saying that you believe base line conditioning has a greater impact on performance, especially on attaining a PR, then warm-up for a discreet time-trial. I am inclined to agree. There is no substitute for being well-conditioned…not new shoes; not new form technique; and, not a warm-up formula. If you’re warm you’re warm, and if you’ve done the ground work, then you’re on your game.

  7. BobsYourUncle
    January 25th, 2012 at 18:30 | #7

    @MD Yeah sorry i rambled a bit there, thanks for summing up! Get warm, get some neuromuscular stim at/near race pace and let the training speak for itself. For mental warmup i try to visually recal the course and a strong finish. Some folks like positive self talk as well.

    I’m speaking as a distance runner, for sprints and peak peak effots like max bench press or squat, an inappropriate warmup can mess things up. For instance static stretching has been shown to reduce peak force for bench press. Maybe for sprints as well?

  8. Colm Colohan
    February 4th, 2012 at 15:22 | #8

    My rule of thumb for warming up is “the shorter the event, the longer the warm up”. However, age may play a role aswell. I see some young “whippersnappers” take off in the pool especially during early morning sessions, yet some more “mature” swimmers require several hundred meters to get their feel for the water.

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