Better Competition Warm-Ups
Swimmers and coaches put a lot of time, energy, and work into achieving better performances through training. Literally years of effort go into any one racing effort. It would stand to reason that we’d apply the same attention to detail when it comes to actually performing at our best at the actual competition.
However, a lot of swimmers and coaches make some simple mistakes during competitions that ultimately leave swimmers falling short of their potential. After all the careful long-term preparation, we get the short-term preparation wrong. Most times, these mistakes arise from not having a plan to succeed.
While there are many aspects of race-day preparation that are important, I’d like to focus on one particular aspect that coaches and swimmers alike have a lot of control over- the warm up. While executing a great warm up is not going to turn Clark Kent into Superman, it is going to make enough of a difference that it could leave swimmers in or out of a final, on or off the podium.
The challenge comes from managing different warm up situations that competitions present. There may be issues with the timing and duration of pool access, crowded warm-up spaces, or mandatory ready room timelines.
There is one KEY component of warm-up that is most critical, yet somehow overlooked in the process of comparing to race.
The clue is in the name.
The key component of an effective warm-up is temperature. More than any other effect we’re looking to achieve, the body temperature needs to increase. This should be the primary consideration when designing warm-up strategies prior to competition. Swimmers need to get warm and STAY warm.
If swimmers are performing any type of movement, this effect will likely be achieved. Almost any strategy is going to help swimmers get warm. However, if swimmers are particularly thin, or the environment is particularly cold, an extra effort may be needed to get warm during warm-up. If the environment is cold enough, some swimmers might actually get COLDER during warm-up. In this situation, the swimming you do may need to be more intense than otherwise intended.
However, the main mistake most swimmers and coaches make is in their attempt to STAY warm after concluding their warm-up, or lack thereof. If there is an opportunity to improve performance, it’s doing a better job of staying warm during the transition period between the conclusion of warm up and when the gun goes off.
There are other considerations such as nutrition, technique, confidence, and getting all of the physiology rolling in the right direction. These are all individual considerations based upon preferences of both swimmers and coaches. In this article, we’re going to focus on the concept of getting and staying warm, as it is a general concept applicable to all. It’s also a goal, as opposed to a specific strategy, and each coach and swimmer can determine which strategies will be most effective based upon the specific circumstances that they encounter
There are three main challenges that swimmers and coaches face that require more attention-
1. Early morning preliminary sessions
2. Limited pool space or limited pool time
3. Extended transition periods
All three situations require specific strategies to ensure that swimmers reach the blocks optimally prepared to go fast. The main goal is to GET warm and to STAY warm, regardless of the situation.
Across many physical disciplines, there is a time of day effect where better performances tend to be achieved later in the day. This effect is seen in many different types of performance, whether tests of endurance or strength. It has also been demonstrated in the pool.
It also appears that some swimmers are more susceptible to this phenomenon than others. It’s pretty easy to recognize these swimmers as they tend to be poor trainers during morning workouts, and often swim faster at night during finals versus preliminary sessions. This isn’t just ‘laziness’ or a lack of focus. Different individuals are wired differently.
Fortunately, some of these effects can be mitigated. In the first case, habitually training in the morning will reduce the time of day effect. Most swimmers are already performing some sort of training in the morning with some frequency. This is an important first step. The time of day effect can also be reduced with aggressive attempts to raise body temperature during warm up.
While acknowledging that this can be somewhat individual, and that some swimmers are wired to perform better earlier, there is a temperature issue in all swimmers. All swimmers will benefit from more a aggressively raised body temperature prior to and during preliminary sessions. Here are some ways to do that.
Wake-Up Early Enough
Waking up 2 hours before the expected race start time is not a strategy for success. While optimizing sleep is important, being HALF-ASLEEP for prelims is not a strategy for success. Getting up early enough is important to starting the process of getting warm and getting ready to go. It takes time and that time must be provided.
There is a reason coaches use wake-up swims; they get swimmers moving and awake well before the start of preliminary sessions. While it seems to be practiced with less frequency, you’ll still see wake up swims performed with regularity at championship meets. For coaches that want a lot of control, this certainly ensures that swimmers will be up and moving early.
There is definitely a trade-off with sleep, especially when preceded by late night finals sessions. There is also the time and energy required to drive to the pool to consider. Wake-up swims accomplish their objective. They get swimmers up and moving. The consideration is whether it is worth the potential sleep loss, as well as the time required to get to the pool. Depending on how early the session starts, as well as the proximity of the pool to hotel accommodations, wake up swims can be a good strategy.
Hotel Pool Wake-Up Swim
For some, wake-up swims at the competition site aren’t practical, or even ideal. Fortunately, there are other options. Most hotels have a pool and that pool is just about as good as the competition pool. It allows swimmers to get wet, getting moving, and get warm. When used in conjunction with a couple minutes in the hot tub, it can definitely elevate early morning temperature while providing a feel for the water. While the space is confined, swimmers can kick against the wall, perform sculling drills, or even swim against a stationary cord.
While it’s not going to be as effective as swimming in the competition pool, the benefits of extra sleep and less travel may be worth it.
If there is no hotel pool, or swimmers are traveling from home, a passive alternative to the wake-up swim is the hot shower. This will definitely elevate body temperature, particularly if swimmers are aggressive in using hot water. The advantage is that it is simple and fast, and accessible to all.
However, swimmers must be careful not to spend too much time under the hot water, as it can be fatiguing after a certain point. To combat this issue, swimmers can alternate hot and cold water, which will definitely wake them up!
While the hot shower accomplishes the goal of raising body temperature, it does so in a passive manner. For some individuals, this may be sufficient. For others, they may benefit from getting moving. This can be as simple as some jumping jacks, arm and leg swings, squats, and abs. Getting the heart rate up slightly and breaking a sweat can help ensure swimmers are getting ready to go early enough. Beyond elevating temperature, the advantage of movement is that it can help to alleviate any residual tightness.
Dryland Shower Combo
Swimmers can also combine dryland and shower for an all-encompassing warm-up. This strategy addresses both active and passive means of getting warm, increasing temperature and getting warm. The benefit of the hot shower and hotel dryland warm up is that it takes 5-10 minutes, requires no travel time, and is accessible to all.
Limited Pool Time and Space
I’ve been to meets where swimmers have 30 minutes to warm up. This challenge is usually compounded when you consider that there are 30+ swimmers in a 50m lane. The ability to conduct a patient, thorough warm-up is definitely compromised. Alternatives are needed.
The best strategy is to accomplish as much of the warm up out of the pool as possible, leaving only the most important aspects of warm-up for in the water. This includes any technical work that needs to be done in the pool, as well as any higher velocity swimming which also must be performed in the pool.
Any aspect of the warm-up that can be adequately conducted out of the pool, should be done so. Any attempts to get warm and get loose should be done on deck. Getting the heart rate up and getting loose can be accomplished as easily on land as in the water. The goal should be to be warm and loose BEFORE getting in the water to ensure that all water work is of high quality.
It’s important that any work performed on land is work that swimmers are used to. If they never do any dryland, warming up on land is not a great strategy, especially prior to competition. It will cause unnecessary fatigue.
As with early morning sessions, a great way to beginning the warming up process is by taking a hot shower. Doing so can passively raise body temperature, requiring less swimming to get warm. If pool time or space is limited, this can be a great way to kick start the process.
While passively warming up can be a great strategy, especially if deck space is limited as well, actively warming up out of the pool is a great way to minimize general warm-up in the pool and to maximize the water time that is available. Any activity that elevates the heart rate and uses progressively larger ranges of motion will be sufficient for these purposes.
It’s important to have several options available so that swimmers that the flexibility to adapt to the specific deck situation they are faced with. As with wake-up dryland, all of the movements used should be familiar to prevent any unnecessary soreness of fatigue.
Prepare Multiple Warm-Ups
As coaches, one of our primary responsibilities is finding solutions in less than ideal situations. While it’s important to have your ‘perfect’ warm-up, it’s also important to be ready with alternative warm-ups that are appropriate for each situation you might find yourself.
There will be warm up situations where swimmers can never perform more than 50m without stopping due to congestion. We better be ready with a warm up that prepares swimmers to swim fast, even if the warm up consists of nothing more than 50m repetitions. It shouldn’t change the results.
Extended Transition Periods
Between changing to racing suits, meet marshaling and ready rooms, as well as a lack of warm-up pool, there can often be an extended period of time between when swimmers must conclude their warm-up and when they actually race. In this case, STAYING warm is the challenge.
I feel this is where there is the most opportunity for improvement in preparing for fast swimming during competition. For the most part, swimmers are adequately warmed up for competition in ideal situations. While they might not always be optimally warmed up, warm up is usually sufficient. However, most of that warm up is lost by the time swimmers step up on the block.
As mentioned earlier, warming up loses a lot of its value if swimmers don’t stay warm. Different situations will require different strategies. Below are some of the strategies that have been demonstrated to be effective in research.
A quick note on research. IF IT WORKS IN RESEARCH, IT ALMOST ALWAYS WORKS IN COMPETITION. As coaches, we’re usually looking for very small improvements in performance. 1/10th of a second is a big deal. It’s actually really hard to find these differences in research settings. So, when these differences are found, you can know that they’re relevant to coaches and swimmers. Many of these studies found difference of 0.5-1.0 seconds per 100 as compared to just sitting around. That matters.
Even periods as short as a 30-minutes between the end of the warm up and the start of a race can lead to a loss of body temperature. Anything we do to prevent that loss is going to aid performance.
Beyond the research, most of these strategies pass the ‘common sense’ test. These strategies all preserve body temperature and they help swimmers stay loose. However, the challenge is not necessarily one of knowledge or understanding, it’s one of implementation. Swimmers actually have to USE these strategies. Pay attention at meets; most don’t.
Hot showers are a great way to maintain body temperature after warm-up, or to re-establish body temperature prior to racing. Say a swimmer has to get out of the pool 1 hour prior to racing. That’s certainly beyond a 30-minute window where body temperature drops.
The swimmer can reduce the that time period by taking an extended hot shower immediately following warm up. They can also take a hot shower 20-30 minutes prior to racing before putting on their competition suit, to start the process of re-establishing body temperature. It’s simple, easy, and available in almost all situations. As it’s a passive means of warming up, there’s little physiological cost to doing so. This can be particularly beneficial during meets with no warm up pool and extended wait times.
Even if swimmers don’t change any aspect of their warm-up strategy, they can enhance their performance by what they choose to wear. Simply wearing warm clothing has been shown to preserve body temperature and enhance performance relative to not doing so. What are some ideas for warm clothing? Consider the following-
· Sweatshirt or jacket
· Warm hats
· Thick socks
Again, these are all common sense choices, yet you see many swimmers sitting around in their suit, wearing nothing else. Swimmers are much better off being too warm than to cold. While it may seem like excess, covering the hands, the head, and the feet will make a big difference in the preservation of heat, and thus performance. It can be helpful for swimmers to think of heat loss as performance leaving the body. They need to do whatever is necessary to keep the heat in!
While warm clothes are definitely a great strategy, there’s the opportunity to turn it up to 11. Heated pants and heated jackets have been shown to improve performance when worn during the transition period between the conclusion of warm up and racing.
These improvements make a difference and the technology is widely available for relatively little cost, especially if one is competing at the highest levels. For those looking to maximize performance, it’s worth looking into. A simple google search can provide some options here and here.
Beyond the research validation, it passes the ‘common sense’ test. External heat sources are going to be better maintain body temperature, and maintained body temperature is going to improve performance. Some options are available here and here.
Land-based work can serve two different purposes during the transition period between the end of the formal warm-up and racing. In the first case, the purpose is similar as when used in regular warm-up. If there has been an extended break, it’s valuable to get the heart rate back up, get body temperature back up, and get loose. The same types of exercises can be used. Anything that gets the body moving is going to be beneficial.
What exercises are chosen is going to depend on the space available, as well as the exercises the swimmers are familiar with. You want to use exercises that aren’t novel, to ensure that fatigue and soreness is minimized. You’re preparing to race, not get tired.
When no warm-up pool is available, getting ready for the next race is going to need to happen on land. When there is a plan, it’s more likely to be executed and executed effectively. As importantly, swimmers will believe in the plan, improving its impact.
The second area that dryland can be used is more relevant to higher level swimmers with tight, controlled transition periods. An applicable situation would be a championship competition with a ready room prior to finals sessions. In this case, the additional dryland is used as a stimulatory effect 10-15 minutes prior to competing.
As an example, an athlete could perform a 3 med ball slams or 3 maximal effort butterfly pulls, 5 explosive sit-up variations, and 3 explosive jumps, with about 10 seconds between exercises. This circuit would be performed twice. A very similar circuit has been evaluated and demonstrated to be effective in research. Of course, this is simply a starting point for ideas. Different swimmers may respond favorably to different exercises, different volumes, and different timing as to when the exercises are performed.
Regardless of what is chosen for implementation, the following rules need to be respected for optimal implementation.
1. Keep the intensity high.
2. Keep the volume low.
3. Perform the stimulation relatively close to the race
4. Choose familiar exercises.
5. Choose safe exercises.
6. Ensure the swimmer is performing exercises they believe will be beneficial.
7. Target the whole body.
No special equipment should be required. Simply find a strategy that should be repeatable regardless of the situation, and practice it so that it’s familiar. It then becomes part of what swimmer’s do to get ready to go fast.
BONUS Inspiratory Muscle Exercise
There is some evidence that low-level resisted breathing can effectively improve race performance. However, I have not experimented with any resistance devices. However, as described above, if research demonstrates an impact, it’s likely creating some sort of positive effect.
Most coaches won’t have access to any sort of resisted breathing device. However, coaches could use taped snorkels, or perform some short swims without breathing to work the lungs. Swimmers could even blow up balloons. I have experimented with this type of work and felt it was likely beneficial, and certainly not detrimental. It could be a positive change, assuming all of the other strategies are implemented effectively.
It’s important to understand the impact of these effects. They’re not going to turn average Johnny into an Olympian. However, it can make an impact on performance amongst competitors of similar ability. The impact tends to be around 0.5-1.0 seconds over 100m racing distances in simulated racing conditions. When considered in the context of championship performances, these effects are probably going to be a smaller.
However, even if it makes 0.2 seconds of a difference over 100m, that could be the difference between winning and not medaling, or whether a swimmer even qualifies for the final. As these strategies are simple to implement and cost very little if any money, there is no reason not to take advantage beyond the cost of doing what’s required to be successful.
Keep in mind that the main purpose of warm up is to get warm EARLY and SUSTAIN that warm up. Regardless of your situation, if you and your swimmers can find a way to make this happen, you’ll be rewarded with better performances that more accurately reflect what each swimmer is really capable of.
Choosing a Strategy
I’ve outlined the various strategies, as well as the variables that might influence why someone would choose to implement any one strategy. At this point, it’s about creating a plan to use them effectively.
This process is all about the fundamental skill in coaching- problem solving. You have a goal you need to achieve, and you need to solve the problem of accomplishing that goal in the present environment with the resources you have available.
Know the Goal
The goal is to get warm, get moving, and STAY warm. We know the objectives. If we can accomplish these objectives, regardless of the circumstances, we are well on our way to helping our swimmers optimally prepare for competition. Beyond any specific aspects of warm up, these are the overarching goals that must be achieved.
Know the Options
Understand all of your options, knowing which are best applied in what situations. By knowing and understanding the options available, you’re in the best situation to make effective choices once you understand the environment you’ll be competing in.
While body temperature retention strategies are relatively straight forward, there are a lot of options for various pool and land-based warm-ups offer a lot of different choices. Have several different warm-ups ready that are more conducive to different situations. If you’re ready with options, it will be much easier to adjust to unexpected circumstances. As importantly, these warm-ups should be easily modifiable in the event that one part of an otherwise excellent warm-up can’t be completed. A small adjustment can make a big difference.
Examine the Environment
How far is the hotel from the competition pool?
Does the hotel have a pool?
What will the warm up environment look like?
How much time will you have?
How much space will you have?
What is the water temperature like?
What is the temperature on deck?
What is the temperature outside?
How much space is there on deck?
These are all factors that can influence what strategies you choose to implement. A change in one factor may result in choosing a very different strategy. You may have plan A, plan B, and plan C. Being ready for any situation, and making sure the swimmers are ready for any situation, will help to ensure the warm up process goes smoothly. A good warm-up sets the stage for a great race.
Make the Decision
Once you understand the environment, it’s time to decide and develop a plan. Once you’ve decided on the best course of action for the situation, it’s time to communicate that plan and implement it. Some of the strategies may seem unnecessary to youth and even elite athletes, especially when they represent a departure from common practice. Communicating WHY is critical, as well as communicating confidence in the plan. If you believe in it, your swimmers will as well.
Hopefully, you’re convinced that some small changes to warm up can make a significant difference in performance. While these strategies won’t take a swimmer to the next level, they can create real and relevant changes in performance. It could help a semi-finalist become a finalist, a finalist become a medalist, and a medalist become a champion. The differences in performance at the top are very small, and the impact of effective race preparation can be larger than these differences.
Important to remember is that each aspect of this is somewhat individual. It will take a different type and amount of work to get warm, get loose, and STAY warm. However, the principles remain the same for everyone. It only takes some careful observation and honest communication between coach and swimmer to find out what works best for each swimmer.
After that, it’s about commitment and execution. It starts with having a plan, and helping swimmers understand the impact that plan can have on their performance.