Controversial Thoughts on The Best Meet Warmup For Swimming
As we know, warming up is an important part of meet preparation, and for as much as some swimmers (sprint types primarily) may loathe a complete meet warmup, the scientific evidence for doing so is beyond debate, in my humble opinion. On this much, the coaching community is unanimous in agreement. As for how to warm up, this is where paths begin to diverge, and how to warmup for a meet is where I will spend my time today. I do believe there is a better way than the current status quo.
There are three schools of thought in regards to meet warmup. On one side we have what I believe are a majority of coaches, who take a hands-off approach, instructing athletes to do what they need to do on their own to be ready to race. On the other side, coaches write the warmup as they would a normal practice, with the team warming up as a group in a specific, coordinated style. In the middle we have coaches who take a bit from both sides, perhaps writing a warmup for some athletes while others warm up on their own.
Here at Liberty, we lean heavily towards the written warmup, and I believe this is the best method for the overwhelming majority of athletes. During the college season, we write each and every warmup for all of our meets, including prelims and finals sessions for three-day in-season invites and our conference meet. While this certainly borders on the controversial, I do believe coaches who instruct athletes to warmup on their own are doing a disservice to some if not a majority of their athletes, and I believe said athletes would be better served with a written, scripted warmup, for reasons that I will list below.
A Disclaimer: In this day and age it seems as though one cannot share strongly held beliefs, opinions, or good heavens - even facts, without a segment of the population (left and right) recoiling in shock, hurt, and anger. Thus, for the fragile coaches out there, consider this your trigger warning. Proceed knowing you are leaving the safe-space of the current intellectual inertia, and entering a brave new world, where yes, my intent and purpose is to challenge the status quo, and force you to think about the why and how of your meet warmup. Perhaps I can convince you there is a better way.
(In jest...surely no one reading this would actually be offended about a meet warmup...the above comments are aimed not at coaches, they are intended instead to get in a quick jab at the sorry state of current American political affairs...without getting political)
First and foremost, a scripted, written meet warmup ensures that each and every athlete is doing, at the minimum, what the coach believes is enough for their specific races. How often have athletes come back after a less than stellar performance and the first question from the coach was in regards to the meet warmup? Was it enough? What did you do? Maybe you need to do more next time? These are questions I overhear on the pool deck on a consistent basis, and I can't help but feel a bit sorry for all parties involved, as a written meet warmup from the coach would have communicated to the athletes exactly what was expected, and would have answered the majority of the aforementioned questions prior to racing. If the coach is not happy with the warmup chosen by the athlete, perhaps said coach should communicate the expectations beforehand?
The truth, as they say, hurts. The reality of our sport is that when left to their own judgment, I do believe the majority of swimmers will err on the side of doing too little for warmup than doing too much. This is human nature in general, in sport and life. We love the "less is more" mindset, and more often than not we expect great results from as little effort/work as possible. Not convinced? We see the same phenomenon when it comes to warming down after a race as well; how often do we hear coaches instructing an athlete to warm down more versus having to pull them out for warming down too much? I find it a bit comical that coaches will take the time and effort to prescribe a specific number of yards for a warm down, but not for a warmup. One would think that both deserve equal focus and attention from coaches and athletes alike?
A scripted, written warmup is a stress relief for athletes. It is familiar, it is comfortable, and it allows the athletes to focus on the how, rather than the what. At a meet I would rather our athletes not have to worry or think too much about what to do for warmup, only think about their details and specific process-driven focus points while doing so. Routine is a good thing in athletics, and we see as much in other sports; rarely do teams and individuals warmup differently for each competition, and rarely do they enter competition without a warmup plan. Another benefit to a coach-directed, written warmup is related to stress and focuses on decision fatigue. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs became famous for wearing nearly the same outfit daily, and many other high-performance individuals talk of the goal of eliminating decision fatigue when structuring their day. I believe a pre-race swimming warmup should be no different. Again, I want our women focusing on the process of warming up and technical details at meets, not thinking too much about what to do or how much. Decision fatigue is a real world phenomenon, and you can read more about Zuckerberg and Jobs here.
A coach written, team warmup is efficient. We run two warmups for meets, one for our sprint group and one for our mid/distance group. When warming up in four lanes for a dual meet for example, it is much more efficient to have our sprint group in two lanes, and our mid/distance group in two lanes, rather than 25 athletes in four lanes working through 25 different warmups. With this style of warmup we don't have our athletes running each other over, and at meets with multiple teams such as our conference meet we see the same benefits; rarely do other teams hop in the lanes where we are warming up because they know we are warming up together and they know it is a hassle for them to swim around us. There are several other benefits on top of the efficiency factor, including the ability of athletes to race head to head across two lanes and also for coaches to coach/watch the warmup. I can follow a written sprint warmup across two lanes with 12 athletes and provide the appropriate feedback when necessary; to do the same for 12 athletes running through 12 different personal warmups...I would be foolish and quite overconfident to think I could give this style of workout the same level of focus and attention. Do you think differently? Imagine the same scenario for a practice and then determine how well you could focus on 12 individual workouts running simultaneously in two lanes?
Our women love the set style warmup, and what athletes love is always a good thing for meet preparation. They love it for many of the same reasons I mentioned above; They appreciate the stress reduction, and they are familiar with the routine. They have confidence in the warmups, and they instinctively know that they are getting a "better" warmup than if they were left to do it on their own. Every now and then we'll have a freshman that considers it odd; those fears quickly subside when they see for themselves the benefits a set warmup provides.
A set warmup allows me to tailor the prescription to the time of the year and allows me another "practice" to work details that I believe we need to work, and I will address this further in the example below. For every meet, we are "missing" one practice, and a set warmup allows us to get a tiny bit of that practice back. While this may seem a bit odd, I do believe the benefits add up over time; why wouldn't we take the time to improve in specific areas if we have the opportunity?
A set warmup allows me as a coach to know that I have done all I could do up until that point to prepare the athletes to swim fast. I touched on this briefly in the first point; I believe I would be doing a disservice to our athletes and Liberty University if I did not prepare our team properly for a meet. Imagine a situation where we lost a dual meet by a few points, and the aforementioned warmup conversation occurred on the deck after a close race lost by our team, a race that could have won us the meet. Did you warmup properly? Why not if no? What can we do better the next meet to warmup better and so forth? I would not consider this a fault of the athlete, but with me, the coach. With all due respect, those warmup questions are specifics I believe we as coaches need to figure out during practice, when wins and losses are not on the line, and not at a meet when the game is hanging in the balance. If a college coach reading this, your opinion on the matter is most likely shaped by your Athletic Director and the expectations placed on your program. Here at Liberty our Athletic Department prefers to win, and aside from resting, shaving, and suiting up, we do everything we can to win every meet we can, because that is what is expected of our program.
Should a race not go as planned, the warmup is one less variable to examine as to why. My assistant coach Jessica Barnes and I know our athletes well, know the times they are capable of producing based on where we are in our training plan and time of year, and know what to expect in a meet, all things considered. If we are off, which is rare, at the very least, we know the warmup was not to blame, and we can go about asking better and different questions to find out how we can improve for the next race. Eliminating variables here is key, and a set warmup allows us to eliminate a poor warmup as a reason for a less than stellar race performance.
Timing is key. This relates back to stress reduction and so forth; a set warmup allows us to gauge time accurately at dual meets, invite meets, and our conference meet. We know exactly how long the warmup will last, and can build in the time needed for specific race pace or start work. We also build in time for suiting up at our conference meet; the last thing we want before a 200 free relay are four frazzled sprinters running around stressing out about time constraints and putting a suit on. With a set warmup, we know that we can get in what we need to swim fast, and still have time for suits.
A set warmup, written on paper, works for us, and Jessica and I have written warmups for every meet over the past seven years of program history here at Liberty, and will continue to do so. Opponents to this style will see it as a dictatorship, perhaps a style that does not allow for individual freedom of expression, and the opportunity to learn what works best for each athlete and what have you. As you may have guessed, I disagree wholeheartedly. There is a time and place to learn life lessons through trial and error...a swimming meet, where wins and losses are on the line, is not the time, nor the place.
College life in general allows plenty of opportunities for student-athletes to learn life skills, time-management, and figure it all out through said trial and error. For those lamenting about a written warmup not allowing the learning of life lessons for our athletes and so forth, consider the following: the amount of sleep they get, what they choose to eat, how much if any they choose to drink, academics, relationships, etc., and so on and so forth, all of these areas are out of our control as coaches. Our student-athletes are forced to learn (or not learn) what works for them and what does not.
Let me repeat: A poor warmup that leads to a lackluster performance at the conference meet (or dual meet for that matter), where a lot of money is being spent, and wins and losses are on the line, is not, in my perhaps not so humble opinion, the time or place to learn about proper meet warmup. If coaches can do more to ensure their athletes are warmed up properly and ready to race, increasing the likelihood of a positive meet result (rather than leave it to chance), I believe they should...if for no other reason than that is what their respective university is paying them to do. It pains me when I see student-athletes at a conference championship meet "learning" from mistakes they didn't have to make!
In another example of the above...consider a different situation...let us take football, the pinnacle of performance related pressure in college athletics, where wins and losses matter, and where millions of dollars are on the line. Imagine situation where a football team was not properly warmed up to play, resulting in a poor performance, perhaps even a loss. Imagine the Athletic Director asks that coach post-game:
AD: "What happened? We looked a bit sluggish out there."
Coach: "Well we didn't warmup properly."
AD: "....Why not?"
Coach: "Well the athletes just didn't warmup properly."
And you can see where this would go...If I were the AD at a top-25 program my next question might be something to the tune of:
"What are we paying you millions of dollars for? You need to make sure they are warmed up and ready to go!"
Staying on the topic of examining other sports, I was a three-sport athlete in high school, with football, swimming, and baseball taking up the fall, winter, and spring playing seasons respectively. Football and baseball featured set warmups, consisting of the same routines before every game. Before each football game, for example, we ran through our physical warmup that included running, stretching, agility drills, etc.. We then went position specific; the quarterbacks would throw set plays to the wide receivers, the linebackers and defensive backs would work their cues and take their drop steps, etc., while the linemen would work through their blocking schemes. Watch your college football team warmup for their next game; it will be much of the same.
Baseball pre-game was similar, featuring a set routine of infield/outfield work, batting practice, and situational "simulations" consisting of runners on base and outfielders hitting their cut-off men, with infielders working the same situations with double play work and so forth. Pitchers had a pre-game bullpen that they ran through much the same way, and when it was all said and done, everyone was ready to play. Watch your next college baseball warmup, and you will see a similar routine.
High school swimming? Hop in, warmup, be ready to go.
In sports where winning and losing matters, in sports where big salaries and millions of dollars of fan revenue and playoff aspirations are on the line...warmups are scripted, they're scientifically developed, and nothing is left to chance. If the warmup does matter, those coaches with millions on the line to lose are going to see to it that their athletes are warmed up properly for a game; anything less would be almost"criminal" considering some of the salaries those coaches earn.
But swimming is an individual sport, they'll say. Athletes need to warmup on their own and do what they need to do because it is an individual process, you will hear. While that sounds good in theory, in one final example, I shall make a bold claim; I do not believe that coaches in the "warmup on your own camp" actually believe this is the best way to approach elite racing performance at meets. No, it simply cannot be that coaches believe this to be the case, because the actions of these coaches throughout the season speak louder than their words. To prove my point, look no further than a regular season practice schedule. If the "warm up on your own" theory is indeed the best way, wouldn't coaches do this all the time, for workouts as well, and not just meets? For example, we'll use a two-hour afternoon practice, 2:00 - 4:00 PM or so:
Coach: "Ok gang its 2:00, the main set starts at 3:00, be ready to rock and roll!"
And then imagine if they warmed up this way, for every practice, each and every workout, throughout the entire year. Surely if coaches believed this was the best way to prepare to swim fast...they would do it all the time, for every practice as well? Yes? No?
While some may do this occasionally to "practice" a meet warmup, coaches do not do this for all workouts, and we know the answer as to why. No coach would run practice this way, because said coach instinctively knows that the overwhelming majority of their athletes would not be ready for the main set. Furthermore, the coach knows that they would be missing out on myriad of opportunities to work specifics they need to work in order to improve their athlete's meet performance. But plenty of elite athletes warm up on their own, and do fine, they will say. I agree, but let us be careful not to make the all too common mistake of using outliers to prove a point - rarely if ever should the extremes be used to paint a broad brush over the mean.
I see each and every main set as a "meet," and each and every practice as a warmup for the main set. Coaches spend all year, each and every practice, day in and day out, writing a scripted "warmup" for the main set (meet). Why then do we not follow the same protocol at an actual meet, when wins and losses are on the line? While this article has not focused much on the physiology of warming up, also consider the following:
Every practice we "warmup" 2,000 - 3,000 yards or more before we start the main set. We have conditioned our student-athletes from a physiological standpoint to be at their best some 3000 yards or so into the warmup. Would it not make sense to continue the same style of preparation for a meet if this is what the body has been trained to do? Surely the science heavy coaches could not refute this point?
A sample sprint group warmup from our opening meet of the 2016 season against Campbell, and an explanation as to the why:
300 Wall Focus:
We open up with Campbell University in North Carolina every year, and for the freshmen, this will be their first time swimming at the Campbell facility. The pool features large windows at the turn end, and the sun can and does cast shadows that can affect turns. Get to know your walls!
4 X 100 Kick Choice:
5 X 100, Odd = Reverse IM order drill or swim, Even = choice:
Start to get the heart rate up. Stroke types start to get your strokes going. Set your technique. Prepare to swim fast. Leverage, joint angles, body position, etc...set it now!
Paddles by Round:
1 = Anti-Paddles
2 = No Paddles
3 = Finis Agility Paddles depending on the touchpad situation...if touchpads are in, no paddles.
1 = 25 Scull / 25 Drill
2 = 25 Drill / 25 Pull
3 = 25 Drill / 25 Swim
4 = Swim
Technique, technique, technique. Let us set it and forget it as they say. This is as much brain training and neuro stim as anything. The anti-paddles connect what little sensory receptors are present in the forearms to the brain, and help work an early vertical forearm as well. I mentioned above that a set warmup allows me to watch/coach - I am actively engaged in this part of the warmup, not wanting to waste an opportunity to further our technical improvement. A hands on approach, sure, but it matters to me...success matters, leave no stone unturned and so forth.
12 X 50 "Zona"
Arizona Drill is a fin/paddle combo drill that I borrowed from Rick DeMont at Arizona. You can read more about the drill here. This serves as a heart rate set with the intention of getting the blood flowing!
Pre-Set, Four Times Through:
50 Choice with Anti-Paddles... "Prepare for a Task" - Rick DeMont
2 X 12.5 Max Blast with parachute, 1 = Kick, 2 = Swim
4 X 25 Mix Sprint...Nevermind the numbers...a bit of a second language we have on our team...know that it is a sprint drill...get up and go type work, and the first 25 was to a foot touch at the turn end, working the walls.
The goal here was to light up the neuro system fully and be ready for maximal effort racing. The resisted efforts with a chute are great in general for fully engaging said neuro system, and provide a Post-Activation Potentiation effect heading into the four 25's mix sprint as well. Rick would often give his sprint types a "100, Prepare for a Task" before a big main set, and we do the same in workouts and in meet warmup here at LU. There is a bit of freedom in our warmup, as you will see below.
I mentioned above that a set warmup allows us to tailor it to the time of the year, allows us to work specific details, and is more efficient/allows for racing opportunities. The sprint group was in two lanes for this warmup, and indeed we saw some great racing betwee the lanes on the Mix sprint 25's. I also wanted to challenge our sprint group with a bit "more" than normal, as our regular warmup consists of 12 X 25 mix sprint instead of 16, and often we go sans parachutes as well. (In reality, I wanted to add in a mini power workout to our training week and disguise it as a warmup...it worked, and wouldn't have been possible without a set warmup)
Specific to Follow:
This is on their own...starts, turns, pace work, etc. They also know they can go extra if they want. This is a "free time" lasting roughly 10-15 minutes, where they can continue warming up as they wish or stop altogether. To those thinking our warmup style is that a of a dictatorship...this is the part where we give our student-athletes the freedom to do what they want...AFTER they've warmed up roughly 3,000 yards, elevated the heart rate, and sprinted with maximal effort.
A few final focus points....relax, race, have fun, focus on the walls, and a reminder that we do not breathe at the finish.
If this meet warmup looks similar to the start of a practice, why yes, it certainly is. A main set would follow a similar warmup in a workout, and again we take the same approach into a meet. I do believe this is the best way for an overwhelming majority of student-athletes to warmup for the aforementioned reasons, and I would love to see more coaches taking this approach.
As always, thank you for reading, and if you know a coach who might also enjoy (or not enjoy) reading, feel free to pass along this article. I invite and welcome dissenting opinions, beliefs, and facts; there are no safe spaces here, and no trigger warnings needed. While I am living in the year 2016, in my heart of hearts it is circa 1885, a time when men debated in good spirit, used sound logic and reason to state their case, tamed emotions, and felt no ill will towards his opponent afterwards.