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by Scott Bay

December 5, 2023

It depends on your experience, your fitness, and your event schedule

What constitutes a good warm-up routine is often ruled by your experience. If you have age-group, high school, or college swimming experience, you might have a great idea about what worked for you back then. But will it work now?

For those who don’t have a swimming background, you’re at an advantage here because you don’t have to unlearn anything or try to remember what you did years ago.

There are a few things to consider as you approach your competition warm-up, such as: How much volume do you swim now and at what pace? What is your current fitness level? What is your age? What and when are your events at the meet?

Through the Numbers and the Years

Multiple variables go into a good meet warm-up. Here are some general guidelines.

  • Training volume—Many swimmers who grew up in the sport know they need a long warm-up when they’re doing heavy volume. If you’re regularly swimming 5,000 yards in workouts, it will take a little longer for you to feel ready to race. Start slow and then play with the intensity and distance. It’s normal to feel sluggish after the first fast efforts. After a little recovery, you’ll find your intense efforts more in tune with easy speed rather than hard work. If you don’t have a swimming background, warm up with some distance before you step up your speed. Recover a bit and then do some short stuff that really lets you put your foot on the gas. For the new swimmer, it’s trial and error, which is best done at practice before the meet.
  • Fitness level—It’s been said that being an adult athlete is hard. Darn right it is! Life intrudes on your training schedule and that has an impact your fitness level. This can mean a diminished recovery between efforts, so some thought needs to go into your warm-up routine. Replenishing energy stores happens more slowly for those who aren’t as fit as they want to be. Concentrate on less yardage during your warm-up and put the emphasis on technique and making each stroke count.
  • Events—It’s not unusual for distance swimmers to use the first part of a long race as a warm-up and then lean into it. They still warm up before the event, but just enough to get the juices flowing and not burn a whole lot of energy. Sprinters often opt for a long warm-up that includes explosive speed work at the end to be ready to swim fast right off the block.
  • Age—With each trip around the sun we get a little bit older and our physiological needs change, as well as the way our body responds to exercise. It’s almost like Newtonian mechanics; when your body is at rest, it wants to stay at rest. The competitor mind is the acting force that changes this, and you get in and start swimming. If you’re a seasoned swimmer, you might have had the experience of feeling horrible in the warm-up pool initially, but the longer you swim the more willing your body is to move. Everyone is different, but if you think back on your training, how far into it were you before you felt ready to go fast? Has that changed as you’ve aged?

At the Meet

How many events are you doing and what are your warm-up options? These are important questions at the meet. If you have late-in-the-day events, do you need the 7 a.m. warm-up in competition pool or is rest a better choice? If the warm-up pool looks like salmon spawning, is there another option? Here are a few tips.

  • Timing—Timing is everything in a warm-up. If your first event is not until 1 p.m., the only compelling reason to get to the early competition pool warm up is to go off the blocks and check out the pool walls and backstroke flags. This is a good move if done for that reason, but if you’re already fatigued, perhaps sleep is more important. The longer the meet and the more events you’re signed up for, the more rest and recovery plays an important role. How to time your warm-up before your event is also a trial-and-error proposition.
  • The pool—Getting a good warm-up in at a big meet is always a challenge in a crowded pool. Get in with the other fish and get some yardage in, but there are other ways to get ready to race. Find a corner of a lane and do some vertical kicking to get the juices flowing and not take up much space. Hands-only treading in deep water will activate your upper body muscles and get them warmed up as well. At some meets, bringing a yoga mat and doing a dryland warm-up in addition to a pool warm-up is a popular option.
  • Between events—There are three variables here. The first is how long is your next event. You have a finite amount of energy, and sprint, middle distance, and distance events require different things. For longer events, you shouldn’t deplete any energy stores, especially if there is more than one distance event on the same day.

    Your second consideration is the length of time between your events. If the engine is already hot, so to speak, do you need a long warm-up if the timing between events is short? The answer is that you should listen to your body. The after-race burn (lactic acid buildup) needs to be brought down, so you’re ready to race again.

    The third factor is how you feel. What your warm-up looks like will be different depending on those first two variables. Sometimes swimmers warm up and feel rough and not ready to race. If you have a bad first race, chalk it up to any number of factors, but as you swim more events, you may find yourself feeling better. What that might mean is you needed a longer warm-up.

The Best Warm-up Is …

The one that gets you ready to race.

Everyone has different needs and responds differently to training and achieves optimal performance with different warm-up routines. Figuring out what works best for you will take time and meet experience.

If you swim with a coach or experienced swimmers, you’ll learn from them and tweak to suit your needs. If you swim on your own, every once in a while, pick a workout to call “race day” and experiment with different warm-up designs and follow up with all-out efforts to simulate a few races.

If you end up at a meet and don’t have a plan, ask a friendly on-deck coach or another swimmer. Most people at Masters swim meets are super nice people who are always willing to help if you have questions.


  • Technique and Training


  • Racing
  • Races
  • Warm Ups