The Importance of Warming Up (and Cooling Down)
I received a painful reminder of the importance of warming up at Regionals in April. I had decided not to warm up, even though I had been out of the pool for an hour and a half, because I did not want to stand around freezing in my wet bathing suit waiting for the start of the 200 breaststroke. The price I paid was that on the last 50 of the race, my muscles were on fire and refused to obey me, and I was light-headed and gasping for air.
A good warm-up is important not only before the competition, but before each event, and especially after a break of more than 15 minutes, for a number of reasons:
1. Jody Welborn, M.D., Vice-Chair of the USMS Sports Medicine Committee and a cardiologist in private practice in Portland, Oregon, explains: "Not only is it important for your muscles to "warm up" but the heart and blood vessels need to get warmed up as well. A proper warm-up increases the heart rate slowly and the blood supply to the muscles gradually. Without this build up to vigorous activity, excess stress is put on the heart with abrupt demands for more oxygen and waste removal. And hard exercise without the proper preparation may result in an abrupt, transient increase in blood pressure, which further stresses the heart."
2. The increased blood brings more oxygen to the muscles. This allows the muscles to begin favoring aerobic energy pathways earlier in the workout. Aerobic metabolism is more efficient and can be sustained for much longer than anaerobic metabolism. It also results in less lactic acid build-up. The longer the swimming event the more the swimmer will depend on aerobic metabolism.
3. Increased blood flow increases the temperature of the muscles and tendons, allowing them to glide better, and making movement more economical. A very typical workout injury involves the masters swimmer who is running late, misses the bulk of the warm-up and after two 25’s of freestyle swims a hard 50 of butterfly. That is a shoulder injury in the making.
4. Although not confirmed in human studies, animal studies have shown that it is more difficult to injure a warmed up muscle. Most of us, especially as we get older, know this to be true.
5. Nerves function optimally in a warmed up environment. Specific activity-related warm-up activates the nerve pathways required for coordinated movement. Joint position is better appreciated in a warmed-up muscle. Swimmers will often refer to this as the “feel of the water” or being able to “feel the stroke.” Drills can help activate the stroke specific nerve pathways.
6. Studies have shown that swimming performance varies according to the time of day due to the circadian rhythms of the body’s physiological variables. For this reason, swimming performance is better in the afternoon rather than in the morning. One of the reasons for this effect is that body temperature is lower in the morning. Researchers found that increasing the morning warm-up time eliminated the body temperature difference; however, evening swimming performance was still superior.
What are the elements of a good warm-up?
A good warm-up will have a general portion and a specific portion. The general part of your warm-up would be easy swimming, probably mainly freestyle, but may include all the strokes. The intensity should be low so that you don’t end up fatigued. If the warm-up is too intense, the muscles will accumulate lactic acid and fatigue early. Some sources say that warm-up should be swum at 20% – 40% of maximum speed for about ten to twenty minutes depending on your preference and fitness level. After the easy swim the specific warm-up will begin.
The specific warm-up will depend on what is to follow. If this is a warm-up for a workout, then the specific portion should be warming up the strokes that will be part of the main set. If this is before a competition, then this portion of the warm-up needs to include the strokes that you will swim in competition. Kicking is an important part of the warm-up and absolutely crucial for breaststrokers to prevent groin pulls and knee injuries. All swimmers should include drills in their warm-up. Pick the drills that emphasize what you need to pay particular attention to. A sprint breaststroker may want to do some breaststroke pulling with a flutter kick, since that emphasizes fast hands. A butterflyer would include some one-armed butterfly to get the body dolphin going without fatiguing the shoulders.
The warm-up during a meet is also important for the mental aspects of racing. The warm-up familiarizes you with the competition pool: what do the walls feel like? Are they slippery? How are the pool markings? How are the backstroke flags and how many strokes will I need before the wall (although this is supposed to be standard, you still need to get the feel for the flag placement)?
Before a race, the specific warm-up should also include some race-pace swims (preferably not all-out sprints). If you are competing in a 50 or a 100 meter event, one or two pace 25s should suffice. For a longer event, the pace swim should still not be longer than 50 or 100 meters. For competition it is also important to include a couple of dives in the warm-up. In addition to preparing your leg muscles, this also allows you to get a feel for the starting blocks, and to see if your goggles and suit are tight enough! This vigorous portion should be finished at least 20 minutes before the start of the first event.
The warm-up should end with easy swimming. During a meet, stay in the water, swimming gently, until you are called to the blocks. If this isn’t possible, then stay in the water as close to the race as possible.
If you have a break of more than 15 minutes, it is a good idea to get back in the water and swim some easy laps. Many swimmers will do a good long warm-up at the beginning of the meet and the sit around until their event. One study showed that warm-up followed by bench rest leads to increased stiffness in the lower back, which could lead to more low back injuries. Remember, the dive is stressful on the low back.
What about the cool down?
Dr. Welborn, explains: “The cool-down is important for similar reasons as the warm-up. During vigorous exercise the heart is pumping large volumes of blood to the muscles via dilated blood vessels. The motion of the muscles, particularly the legs, helps the blood return to the heart. By decreasing the heart rate slowly, the blood vessels have a chance to decrease their supply to the muscles gradually. If exercise stops abruptly, the heart is still pumping large amounts of blood, which is then not returned efficiently. The heart must pump harder to get proper blood return. This places stress on the heart and, in the presence of underlying heart disease, may cause symptoms. More commonly, the dilated vessels, and gravity, when combined with decreased blood return to the heart, allows blood to pool in the legs decreasing blood flow to the brain with resultant dizziness or fainting.”
Swimming easy for 10 to 20 minutes after a race is called an active recovery. Studies have shown that blood lactate levels (responsible for fatigue), will return to resting levels in 30 minutes after active recovery, rather than 60 minutes with passive recovery such as plopping yourself in a deck chair.
Now that I realize that not warming up before the next race is more painful than freezing in a wet bathing suit, next time I’ll just bring a parka to keep warm.
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