Warming up is an essential ingredient to swimming a great race. Unfortunately, many swimmers are unaware of how best to prepare their bodies for competition in the hours and even moments leading up to the starting gun.
Months of hard training and weeks of proper tapering can all go down the drain without a proper pre-race warm-up, and curiously many athletes don't give this important racing component the attention it deserves.
Although different events (sprints vs. distance, freestyle vs. breaststroke) require different warm-ups, there are a few basic rules of thumb that can ensure a successful performance.
Most masters meets begin in the morning, and the first step to a great race is allowing yourself enough time to feel wide awake. Ideally, you need to be awake for two hours before your race. So if your event is at 10 a.m., the latest you should be getting up is 8 a.m. Preferably you would get up at 7, do a few hundred meters of easy swimming called a wake-up swim, and then have a light breakfast before relaxing and beginning a few simple stretches in preparation for your actual warm-up.
Note: A wake-up swim is not a warm-up. It is, obviously, a way to wake you up while also tricking your body into thinking it is later in the day when you return for your official warm-up. Having already been in the water and gotten your blood flowing, you will feel energetic and alert, even if it is only 8:30 or 9 a.m., and will not need extra time to wake up during your pre-race warm-up.
The Pre-race Warm-up
A pre-race warm-up needs to be lengthy and relaxed. Give yourself at least 30 minutes—if not 45—to feel good in the water. Remember, there are days when you feel lousy in your workout until the very last minutes when things suddenly click; so give yourself a chance to feel good even if it means swimming continuously until you reach that place. Besides, if you feel horrible anyway, what have you got to lose? Keep swimming until you feel better.
If you don't feel better at all no matter what, your taper may be off and it might not be your best race day. However don't throw in the towel just yet: Once the start gun goes off, the adrenaline surge you inevitably feel may be enough to spur you on to a great race. Many world-class athletes have competed in races without feeling their best and managed to surprise themselves when push came to shove.
Back to the warm-up: Begin with 500 to 1,000 meters of easy freestyle and maybe a few alternate strokes. After this, it is necessary to get your heart rate up to 85 percent of your max (max heart rate is approximately 220 minus your age). This can be achieved with a short, explosive set, such as 5x50 @ 1:00 min. descending (meaning each 50 is faster than the last). After completing this set, swim easy for a few hundred meters to loosen out your muscles again and allow your heart rate to decrease.
Next, a short kicking set followed by a few hundred meters pulling with buoy and paddles will serve to warm up your legs and shoulders and prepare you for the final bit of pre-race warm-up: the pace and/or sprint set.
Depending on your specialty, you may choose to do a sprint set of 4x25 with lots of rest, sprinting to simulate your race start. If your events are more endurance-oriented (over 200 meters), a few pace 100s with 10 seconds rest are a good way to fine-tune your pacing and get a feel for what it's like to hold a certain time per 100.
An Ideal Pre-race Warm-up
5x50 @1:00 descend
200 easy freestyle
4x50 kick, 15 seconds rest
300 pull, buoy and paddles
4x25 sprint (race pace), 1:00 rest
3x100 @ 10 seconds rest, long distance pace
400 easy, swimdown
Total: 2,000 meters
Remember, you may need to swim more than 2,000 meters to feel completely loose and warmed-up. The above example is just a rough guideline to help you build your own personal warm-up.
You should finish a warm-up at least 20 minutes before your event. If you end up having to wait longer to compete, it is a good idea to re-enter the water immediately prior to your event and do a few quick laps to get your heart rate going again and stimulate blood flow to your arms and legs. You want your heart rate to be above resting when you start your race so that you don't spend the early part of the event getting your pulse up to racing speed; it should already be faster than usual when you step up on the blocks.