As with any sport, there are a million ways to prepare for competition. The ideal warm-up for swimmers is especially difficult, as there are two radically different surfaces to consider. Should swimmers warm up in the water or on land? Maybe both?
All coaches and athletes employ some type of stretch or warm-up activity both in and out of the water. Usually, there is a bias toward one or the other, though. Go to a swim meet, and you’ll see all the strategies. But which is ideal? The answer is both.
Warming Up in the Water
Ideally, swimmers should get acquainted with the water prior to competing in it. They need to feel the temperature of the water and go through the motions of their strokes. Going through the exact motions of a stroke in the water helps the athlete warm up the same muscles they’ll be using in the exact same sequences. This helps fine-tune their technical efficiency, which is crucial to improving race times. It creates short-term muscle memory, if you will. Nothing replicates swimming like, well, swimming. Nothing else will prepare a body to swim better than making the motion itself. Warming up in the water is vital to optimal performance.
A swim-specific warm-up can demand a wide range of time and effort specific to the athlete’s personal preferences. Whatever they prefer is fine as long as the athlete doesn’t spend too much energy in the water. Where most coaches and athletes get it wrong, though, is what they do on dry land.
Dry Land Warm-up
As I said, all athletes do at least a little dry land warm-up prior to the race. Many athletes do whatever they feel like, usually involving various stretches and some jumping in place. These aren’t terrible ideas, but not necessarily the best, according to research.
Post activation potentiation is a very exercise science-y term, but all athletes and coaches should familiarize themselves with it. Post activation potentiation (PAP) is the phenomenon by which the force exerted by a muscle is increased due to its previous contraction. In other words: do something hard, then do something easy. You’ll find that doing the easy thing is much easier after doing something hard.
Here’s a classic example of PAP. Imagine jumping as high as you can, and measure the height of the jump. Next, let’s say you do a really heavy squat. After the squat and a rest break, you jump again. This time you jumped a lot higher. That is PAP. The heavy squat primed the body to move some serious weight. This pumped the body up, making your jump feel effortless, leading to a better result.
PAP is a strength and power hack that many elite athletes use to get the most out of their performance. It’s essentially a temporary performance booster. Swimmers can significantly benefit from the PAP principle to swim their fastest, particularly at the start.
A swimming race begins with a jump off the block. At the end of each lap, the athlete similarly jumps explosively off the wall. Approximately 30% of swim times are attributed to the start of short races. Using PAP as a warm-up on dry land can be especially helpful in getting the most out of these jumps. Improving the start off the block, as well as the beginning of each lap, can be pivotal to winning a race.
A 2021 study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that PAP immediately improved swim times in the first 15 meters for 11 national-level swimmers. Here are the three exercises performed and recommended for swimmers to get the most out of PAP and their dry land warm-up.
1. Banded squat. The band creates more resistance as you come up in the squat. This is fantastic for power development and will let to a better launch off the block.
2. Weighted jump. This is another exercise that creates a more powerful jump. Similar to the banded squat, except this time you are jumping.
3. Drop jump. The quick landing forces the athlete to quickly and reactively contract the involved leg musculature. This also helps prime the nervous system yet while expending little energy.
Here are quick examples of this on my Instagram account.
Remember, this warm-up shouldn’t be viewed as a traditional exercise. Let the athlete do this at their own pace, ensuring they have plenty of rest time between reps and exercises. I would recommend only 3-5 reps of each of these.
These exercises require minimal equipment that I do recommend the athlete brings, besides the dumbbells. Dumbells are ideal, but there are usually items or even weights already at the facility that can be used instead of your own. Use your own discretion.
Warming up before an athletic event is crucial for optimal performance and injury prevention. Creating a more ideal warm-up is the most effective way to boost game-day performance. Both dryland and in-water activity is necessary for an optimal swim warm-up.
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