Warm-up: The Science Behind It – Part 1

By Matt Bird

Why we warm-up

Warm-up is a necessary part for optimal performance both in and out of the pool. Before every workout, swimmers should engage in some type of warm-up, prepping both their mind and body for optimal performance at each practice. Warm-up before swim practice, or competition can look different than the preparation before dryland training, but the fundamentals still remain the same.

A proper warm-up as defined by McGowan et al. (2016) includes four key objectives of a pre-competition warm-up as: 1) physiological, 2) kinesthetic, 3) mental, and 4) tactical. It is important for an athlete to have a wide assortment of exercises and procedures in order to properly prepare the body for any physical activity.

Warming up in the weight room can look different compared to a warm-up in the pool. When we warm up in the weight room, time usually becomes a crucial component compared to swim practice time. Therefore, preparing for the main objective of the workout in the weight room needs to be thoughtfully maneuvered. Whereas general movement preparation and specific lading principles are important to the warm-up for dryland, more specific and skillful executions are witnessed for swimming warm-ups.

Physiological

The body needs to be primed for performance, which includes raising the body temperature and heart rate, and improving mobility. Three main areas that should be focused on in a proper warm up are: 1) cardiovascular, 2) mobility, and 3) movement preparation.

Cardiovascular

The goal of cardio portion of warm-up is to raise the heart rate and raise body temperature to improve the neuromuscular ability to consume oxygen and deliver energy to working muscles. If this is the first practice of the day, it gets particularly important to reach certain level of heat in our bodies for proper enzymatic and metabolic reactions to take place. To give you an idea of the reasoning behind this, a well-conducted warm-up:

  1. Should be designed to raise muscle temperature to 39 degrees Celsius, a full 2 degrees Celsius higher than our normal resting temperature at 37 degrees Celsius (Takizawa et al, 2006).

  1. Increases enzyme production in the body by increasing the temperature of the body, thus improving metabolic functions and oxygen uptake (Takizawa et al, 2006)

Mobility

The goal of mobility is to activate and open up muscles that work with corresponding joints. We differentiate between mobility work and stretching in that mobility is the focus on improving the ability of executing certain body movements. Working on improving the whole body, instead of just individual muscles is the main difference between mobility and stretching.

Movement Preparation

We specifically focus on making sure the muscle and joints of the shoulders and hips are prepared for the movements that will be demanded of in the pool and in the weight room. Some thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Movement preparation is different in the water than it is on land, mostly due to time restraints on land. Swimming in itself is a great warm-up activity, promoting all 3 physiological characteristics of warm-up. Dryland exercises need to be varied and done with the right intention to promote all three characteristics of warm-up.

  • Movement Preparation in the weight room is usually done in building blocks, to prepare for fast movements. This is done by improving joint mobility and muscle activation, then progressing to lighter fast movements, to eventually get ready for the main working sets.

  • Usually we need to be ready a lot quicker in the weight room due to time, as opposed to in the water where the swimmers have sometimes multiple sets that can range from 15-45 minutes of warm-up depending on the coach.

Kinesthetic

Coaches often teach the importance on “feeling” the water, whether this is before competition or during practice. Kinesthetic approaches to warm-up are important to getting a primer, or introduction to the movements you are about to execute. According to the poll conducted by McGowen et al. (2016), coaches advise their swimmers to prepare their proprioception and familiarity with the environment by performing skills and drills in and out of the water. Skills include practicing starts on the blocks, turns on the walls, and stroke counts for the length of the pool or from the backstroke flags.

Preparing the kinesthetic traits of the athlete in the weight room follows the same routine as in the water. Strength coaches prepare their athlete for the main working sets by instructing them through warm-up sets, especially leading up to more complex lifts. Drills for the Olympic lifts become especially important in getting the right muscles engaged for proper form and technique the following working sets.

Tactile

As an athlete, planning is a crucial part of your success both in and out of the pool. Tactile warm-up strategies need to be included before competition, and can be introduced before practice to ensure proper execution. To prepare tactfully for your race and competition, athletes should be performing short maximal effort swims to get the “feeling” for their pace and speed for their races. Although meet preparation warm-up is very individual, sprinters should preform short speed swims for no more than 25 m or 50 m, while distance swimmers should perform some swims at their pace time for a short amount of time. Tactile preparation should be done near the end of the warm-up, and should take no more than 10 minutes.

Mental (Psychological)

Warm-up is much more than physiological preparation, as in competition. Science and physiology can only attest to so much before the mind needs to take over. Knowing what main set you are preparing for can be key for mental preparation. By giving the athletes the emphasis of the workout and the first set, we are asking them to perform the given warm-up movements with deliberate execution. This means that there needs to be a focused mind throughout an entire set of movements before relaxing and shaking out.

Psychological preparation is a tough thing to prescribe as a coach, and should be addressed to the individual. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law on states of arousal, optimal performance comes when the individual has the optimal level of arousal (Yerkes, R.M. & Dodson, J.D., 1908). The Yerkes-Dodson Law is based off a bell curve of anxiety, as pictured below. Warm- up is essential to getting the individuals level of arousal to its optimal where performance will be at its highest.

Picture1

Conclusion

Warm-up is meant to prepare the body and mind for optimal performance in whichever platform the athlete is about to perform. It is critical for the athlete to take warm-up seriously, and move with intention and thought through the movement patterns to ready the body and mind for performance. If done correctly, warming up will protect the athletes from unwanted injuries and will also air in getting the most out of a workout or a race. Swimmers should prepare for optimal performance at their competitions, but should also be striving for their best practices in the pool and in the weight room. As an athlete, the goal is to push the limits and workload in each practice, and a proper warm-up is a critical step to optimizing your training in maximizing your work effort.

References

Mcgowan, C. J., Pyne, D. B., Raglin, J. S., Thompson, K. G., & Rattray, B. (2016). Current Warm-Up Practices and Contemporary Issues Faced by Elite Swimming Coaches. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,30(12), 3471-3480. doi:10.1519/jsc.0000000000001443

Mcgowan, C. J., Pyne, D. B., Thompson, K. G., Raglin, J. S., Osborne, M., & Rattray, B. (2016). Elite sprint swimming performance is enhanced by completion of additional warm-up activities. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-7. doi:10.1080/02640414.2016.1223329

Fradkin, A. J., Zazryn, T. R., & Smoliga, J. M. (2010). Effects of Warming-up on Physical Performance: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,24(1), 140-148. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181c643a0

Takizawa, K. & Ishii, K. (2006a). Relationship between muscle oxygenation, VO2, and high intensity aerobic exercise performance improving effect of warm-up. Advanced Exercise and Sports Physiology, 12, 127-133.

Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology,18(5), 459-482. doi:10.1002/cne.920180503