How to warm up for a swim

Warming up properly before swimming can improve your swim performance enormously, says tri coach Philip Hatzis. Here is his top advice for a successful swim warm up

How to warm up for a swim

Warming up for a swim is often one of the most poorly attempted parts of any session that a triathlete does. When you consider the usual approach to a bike and run warm-up, there is an element of slow, steady work (maybe 5-10 mins) before some mobility, a build set, and then the main set. It could be 20 minutes before there is some hard work.

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With swimming, we typically see a 200-400m warm-up in triathlon swimming sessions before a “classic” 100m build effort and then a move into the main set, yet this is not how it often works out. Often in group workouts, the first few lengths are a bit of a race with everyone trying to keep up with the fastest person at the front, and it is rare for a group workout to facilitate the individual’s warming up pace.

Nevertheless, we are missing one significant comparison between swimming and the other two disciplines. Very few of us use our arms to get ourselves poolside, unlike running and cycling, where we have already loaded our legs by walking. In swimming (aside from lifting our bag out of the car), we are unlikely to have even moved our arms around in a full circle before diving in. Add the fact that often the first few lengths are spent racing with the leader of the lane, it is a totally different approach to a run or bike warm up.

This limited warm-up for a pool session is reduced further when we go to an open water venue. We usually swing our arms five times, dip our toes in, curse at how cold the water is while pretending to our peers that it feels barely cold at all, and then swim the 1km loop that the venue has put out for us. This is totally different to our land-based activities.

At Tri Training Harder, we talk a lot about how the work out of the water can make a more considerable difference to your swimming than the extra lengths you can do in that time. This has never been more true than when talking about the warm-up.

What is a good warm up for swimming?

A good swimming warm-up should begin before the swimmer gets wet. We would often get our athletes warming up poolside with some activation, mobilisation and core work. We want the upper body and core to be fully activated and ready to go. (For elite swimming clubs, this dryland section is a mandatory part of the swim session.) Only then can we ensure that the wet bit is done safely and encourage proper swimming actions.

Most warm-ups will follow a similar pattern: RAMP: Raise (the heart rate, body temperature, muscle readiness), Activate, Mobilise and Potentiate (specifically prepare the body for work).

With swimming, the R and the P can be done in the water, but the A&M are harder to do (though mixed stroke helps – but how many triathletes are really happy to do mixed stroke…?) Therefore, some time spent on the pool deck working on activation and mobilisation will improve a triathlete’s warm-up. This may be 5-15 mins depending on the time you have. Time spent here will usually be a lot more beneficial than time spent swimming instead.

What are good warm up exercises to do before swimming?

The fun bit about this is that you can do whatever you want and make it your own. Here are a few examples:

Activation and Mobilisation:

  • Foam rolling 
  • Arm swings (in all directions)
  • Hip rotations
  • Leg swings
  • Ankle mobility work
  • Streamlining on tiptoes
  • Theraband shoulder work (check out these videos)

Below is an example of something you might do poolside.

Strength and conditioning

To prepare yourself for the swimming movement, we love including some basic core exercises and strength movements:

  • Plank (side, front)
  • Plank with leg lifts
  • Press-ups
  • Triceps dips
  • Threading the needle
  • Band work (swimming arms)
  • Lunges

You can see how some strength work can be done below

There is no need to complicate it with anything too fancy – just the main Push, Pull and Stabilise movements. Below is a quick but basic warm-up.

You can find more strength training advice here

Then, when you dive in, you can do your first steady 400m knowing you are ready to swim – you may be surprised at how different you feel. The build set should feel easier too, and any work on form or technique will be improved as you will have already opened up and prepared your whole body for the exercise.

Race morning routine

The great thing about perfecting this poolside warm-up is that you suddenly have an ideal race morning routine. This is important as you won’t need to worry about reinventing the wheel whilst comping with pre-race nerves. You will be going through a process that you know and are familiar with. You may also add some of the work you do before running or cycling, and then you have your race day routine. At events where you cannot get into the water before the gun goes off, you will almost certainly have created an edge over those swimmers who are not prepared for the initial 300m push to the first buoy.

With all the benefits and no notable downside other than it leaves less time to swim in a session, why do more people not do this? Most of the time, they don’t want to feel silly on the poolside: but imagine if everyone lost their inhibitions and just did it! Or perhaps you do it just before you leave home for the swimming pool– it isn’t as effective, but it would be a big step towards a better warm-up.

We hope you decide to do a thorough warm-up and reap the rewards in your swimming.

Philip Hatzis is a BTF Level 3 qualified coach and Ironman certified coach. He is the founder and head coach of Tri Training Harder.

Philip has taken many of his coached athletes to World and European Championships in all distances, including both Ironman and ITU, to both medal and compete. As an athlete he has competed at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.

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Top image by Getty Images