You must simulate race conditions in practice to get better at racing. This includes having a plan for a general warm-up, perhaps an event-specific warm-up, what to do if no warm-up pool or lanes are available during the meet, what your athletes need with them behind the blocks (goggles, a relay card (?), a cap (?), their suit tied (?), everything); all to get their minds focused and their bodies ready to race. In practice the swimmers can race against the clock, race against teammates, and/or race against the whole team. This is one of the basic advantages of being on a team, competitive cooperation. Swimmers can push each other to get better not only by lane talk and finishing their sets well, but by racing and competing against one another at practice to push all of the team to a higher level, and then be able to compete better as both a team and as individuals.
This article focuses on the basics of physical race readiness – it goes without saying that an appropriate race strategy, as well as any mental/psychological preparation, should be planned for and practiced as well. The way the below warm-ups are structured leads naturally to an increasing level of focus, so include strategy and mental prep within the warm-up as works best for your swimmers.
Warm-ups should move from general swimming to specific skills and proceed from lower intensity to higher intensity. This goes equally for start-of-the-competition team warm-ups to specific individual or relay warm-ups. We establish a general team warm-up early in the competitive season that progresses as above to get our athletes energy systems on-line first (moving from aerobic to anaerobic) and then bring their nervous-systems on-line once they are fully warmed-up (starts, short full speed sprints, etc). A set warm-up routine allows the swimmers to individually tailor their efforts in order to be race ready, whether adjusting efforts within the team warm-up, adding extra efforts at the end of team warm-ups, and allowing for any specific pre-race warm-ups.
Our base warm-up is as follows:
A. 10 min aerobic swim (HR 25 +/- for 10 second count)
B. 6 x 100 choice on 1:45, last 2 100’s build to sprint
C. 3 x (4 x 25 sprint choice on :40, 1 x 50 easy on 1:20)
D. Starts with 15 to 25 yard sprints
E. Additional swimming (pace?), turns, relay starts, etc
This simple plan allows us to easily make adjustments for time available and allows each swimmer the ability to find what works best for them to be race ready individually within our team warm-up structure. Some athletes may need more volume and/or more intensity, and this can be adjusted once a basic team warm-up is in place and well practiced.
If by chance there is no warm-up pool available during a competition, any type of whole-body deck-based dryland for 10 to 15 minutes +/- can be helpful for specific race preparation, especially if there is a significant break between team warm-ups in the pool and a specific race. Just as with the swim warm-up, steady efforts at a lower intensity shift to shorter efforts at a higher intensity. We use the deck-based warm-up that follows as needed, and practice this warm-up at swim practice, at dryland, and at early-season meets so that each swimmer can find (and then use) what works best for them to be race ready.
Deck Warm-up Example
3 to 5 x 15 Squat-Thrusts :30 rest +/- between
3 to 5 x 5 Clap Push-ups or 10 fast Push-ups :30 rest +/- between
3 to 5 x 3 Full Jumps :30 rest +/- between
This example is simple, easy to do, and easy to practice. The above deck warm-up would take about 12 to 15 minutes to complete, so if you want to be behind the block and ready to go 5 minutes +/- prior to your race, you’d want to start this about 20 to 25 minutes out from the projected race start time.
Many times I have my athletes do some of the above after a specific swim warm-up even when there is a dedicated warm-up pool. Fast, powerful, explosive movements fire up your nervous system and get you ready to compete. Again – this should be something learned at practice!
Behind the Blocks
Assuming you have done both a general and a specific warm-up for your race, the last 5 minutes +/- behind the blocks should be race prep time for the individual swimmer. Different athletes get prepared for races in different ways – some joke around, some zone out, some become mildly excited, some hyper-excited, etc. What works best for one swimmer may not work for their teammates – and they will never know what works best for them unless they experiment at practice! One thing I try to have sprinters do (from 200m and down) is to get their nervous system completely fired up by slapping themselves – arms, legs, back, chest (or doing “percussive” massage – which is a fancier, Eastern-Block way of saying “slapping”). This should be done just prior to racing – like one minute or less prior to your race, maybe even up on the blocks. Another easy way to get the nervous system firing is to grab the block hard when given the “Take your mark” command, and be sure that this does not interfere with start mechanics by – yet again – practicing this.
This brings us full-circle back to practice. Practice racing. Practice sprinting. Practice general and specific warm-ups. Practice deck warm-ups just-in-case. Practice being prepared behind the blocks. Practice nervous system activation. Know what works for you before your major competitions and then practice these things.
Practice being ready to race!
– Coach John Coffman, Faster Swimming & NAAC