Science of Performance: Minimal Water Warm-up Movement

By Dr. G. John Mullen, PT, DPT, CSCS of Swimming Science, Owner of COR PT , Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review, Swimming Troubleshooting System , and Mobility for Swimmers System , Swimming World correspondent

SANTA CLARA, California, June 4. NEARLY one year ago, I hinted in the article Best Warm-up for Sprint Swimming Performance that a short water warm-up or only an out-of-water warm-up may be more beneficial for swimming performance than a regular warm-up. Since this piece, other notables, specifically Dr. Brent Rushall, have hinted at similar notions in his most recent swimming science bulletin USRPT Defined: After Two Years USRPT Comes of Age. Version 1.0.

Minimal or No Warm-up
The idea of a minimal warm-up comes from the notion that warm-up is simply meant to warm-up the body. If heating up the body is all that is required, is swimming in a cooler environment (the pool) with poor strokes the most beneficial? Moreover, would out-of-water warm-ups be better than slow swimming with poor biomechanically-impairing strokes?

I first began wondering about this idea after reading a scientific piece by Balilionis (2012) where collegiate swimmers performed one of three conditions:

1. No warm-up
2. Short warm-up (50 yards at 40 percent of maximum speed and 50 yards at 90 percent of maximum speed)
3. Regular warm-up (less than 1300 meters)

Of these warm-ups, the regular warm-up had the greatest result, but 19 percent of the swimmers had their best performance with a short warm-up and 37 percent had their best performance with no warm-up! This suggested 56 percent of the participants were not warming up to their best capacity. This study only provides part of the story, as out-of-water warm-ups were not have not been scientifically tested in swimming, making it impossible to know for certain. Also, the normal warm-up was the most successful warm-up condition in the Balilonis (2012) study. However, if swimmers can perform best times with short or no in-water warm-up, then why are swimmers doing such long warm-ups?

Is it Only Body Temperature?
If all this warm-up is needed, then simply heating the body or maintaining heat before exercise shouldn’t matter. Faulkner (2013) had a group perform a warm-up, and then wear one of the following 30 minutes before a sprint:

1) Tracksuit pants (control)
2) Insulation only
3) Insulation plus heating (40-42 degrees centigrade)

After the warm-up, during the experimental condition, before the sprint, and after the sprint, core and muscle temperatures, as well as heart rate, blood lactate and body and leg comfort levels were assessed.

These results found a 9 percent improvement noted with a 1 degree centigrade increase at the depth of 1-4 centimeters. The insulation trials improved insulation and muscle temperature compared to the control. Insulation plus heating yielded the largest increases with insulation and muscle temperature. Absolute power output was greater in the heated condition. Blood lactate was highest in the heating group after the maximal exercise. There were no differences in heart rate or core temperature and thermal comfort was not different between the conditions.
Some will argue the study utilized a 30-minute warm-up, providing recalibration for these athletes. Others can argue this was not done in swimming, making it inapplicable. Both are valid points.

Why so Much Warm-up?
Nonetheless, if warming-up the body is all that is needed, then why do elite swimmers and other elite athletes perform long warm-ups? The main theory exists for a longer in-water warm-up is the decrement warm-up theory.

Decrement In Warm-up Theory
There are always gaps in time between training, requiring the body to re-warm-up. The longer between related tasks, the larger the decrement of the desired task. Unrelated tasks like walking or sitting may alter the sensorimotor network and must recalibrate before performing the desired task. For less-skilled people, this altered sensoriomotor network is negligible. However, highly-skilled athletes notice the smallest of changes.

In this theory, a longer warm-up helps recalibrate and decrease the decrement from the most recent training/condition. However, this task must be performed at exact biomechanical conditions, not slow conditions, for proper recalibration. Even this theory doesn’t suggest performing long, slow warm-ups, but rather highly specific tasks.

Minimal Water Warm-up Movement
Traditional warm-ups are extremely long and unspecific for the desired task. If you perform a traditional warm-up, try a minimal water warm-up and see if you can perform best times without wasting time miscalibrating the sensoriomotor network.
If you dare, try an intense dynamic out-of-water warm-up before you hop in the water.

A 10-15 minute out-of-water warm-up including dynamic mobility and injury prevention combined with motor control training, helping the athlete gain athletic development and prevent muscular imbalances. If you’re not brave enough for a solely out-of-water warm-up, try this same out-of-water warm-up followed by a shorter in-water warm-up. Trust that these warm-ups will warm your body and allow elite performance without the waste of tireless and inefficient swimming. This warm-up also saves times for the coach, swimmer and parent. This warm-up is also more enjoyable than slower, boring swimming with the black line.

Be more efficient, have more fun and swim faster today with the minimal water warm-up movement!

1. Ajemian R, D’Ausilio A, Moorman H, Bizzi E. Why professional athletes need a prolonged period of warm-up and other peculiarities of human motor learning.
2. Faulkner SH, Ferguson RA, Gerrett N, Hupperets M, Hodder SG, Havenith G. Reducing Muscle Temperature Drop after Warm-up Improves Sprint Cycling Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Feb;45(2):359-65. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31826fba7f.
3. Balilionis G, Nepocatych S, Ellis CM, Richardson MT, Neggers YH, Bishop PA. Effects of different types of warm-up on swimming performance, reaction time, and dive distance. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3297-303. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318248ad40.

Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the owner of COR PT, strength and conditioning consultant, creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.

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Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the Senior Writer for and Swimming World Magazine. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

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