Warm-up, Warm-down, and Recovery in Swimming


Tim Waud

Tim Waud

Warming up for practice and competition is vital to swimming performance.  The hardest part of swimming is just getting into the pool.  Warm-up is a physical and mental process that can vary immensely from person to person.  Mentally we need to get into the right mind set and we need to prepare our physical being for the demands we will put our body through.  Experiment with your warm-ups and find out what works best for you.

A warm-up is not defined by distance or minutes, but rather by what kind of swimming you do and, to a certain extent, how you feel.  When your body is warmed up, you will be able to change swimming speeds effortlessly.  Some days you will need far fewer laps to warm up than on other days, when you may swim for an hour and still feel sluggish trying to break into a sprint.  The amount of swimming it takes to warm up depends on a number of variables, both internal and external: from where you are in your training cycle, to how much sleep you’ve been getting, to what you’ve eaten, to the water temperature, to the time of day.  Age plays a role too.  Masters swimmers tend to need a longer, more gradual warm-up.

Be on time for practice and competition.  Getting to the pool on time for practice and competition is important, and not just because every lap of warm-up counts.  Rushing around causes stress (both mental and physical) that can be detrimental to athletic performance.  If you are running late, the best thing to do is accept it, relax, and just start swimming easy, as if you were on time.

Smooth Swim Perfect (SSP) swimming.  Start every warm-up with some smooth swimming.  There is a difference between smooth swimming and lazy swimming.  Smooth swimming is mindful and has perfect technique, while lazy swimming is mindless and sloppy.  Once you’ve swum an appropriate distance, start swimming drills.  Swimming drills and kick drills are a great way to rehearse technique and also work on warming up your legs.  Kick sets are very important to warming up leg muscles because they consume a large amount of oxygen.

Warm down

Part of an effective and proper swim session, whether it’s an early morning practice or an important meet, is restoring your body.  Part of a total performance swimming plan is recovery and the cool down exercises that you do after working out.  Warming down is also an important step in helping muscles clean out the lactate and other waste that has accumulated during rigorous exercise.  When you swim at high intensities, metabolites like inorganic phosphate, lactate, ADP, and hydrogen ions build-up in your body and can compromise your next swimming performance.  A proper warm down facilitates the removal of lactate after a race or intense swim session.

There are numerous studies that show swimmers having better performance with a proper warm down.  Studies from the Journal of Swimming Research show that “an active recovery between events (which was essentially a cool down from the first race), resulted in improved performance versus the passive recovery.”  Warming down after each race is going to help you have better performance in the next race, so make it part of your routine.


John Underwood, the founder of the American Athletic Institute–Human Performance Project and an internationally recognized human performance expert, tests this concept on a daily basis.  From the United States Navy Seals to members of the National Basketball Association, to top NCAA and high school athletes, Underwood examines ways to improve one’s athletic performance, which can be directly applied to swimming.

According to Underwood, when swimmers train hard through the whole season and finally reach their peaking phase, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. Your times will plateau.
  2. You will swim slower.
  3. You will get a personal best time.

The most significant factor in a personal best time is that you are well rested.  Recovery is critical to your training and swimming performances.

Even though recovery is a highly influential aspect to performance, it is often misunderstood.  “Recovery is the key to performance and is the most overlooked aspect to training,” Underwood said.  It is scientifically proven that some of the most significant pieces of recovery include post-nutrient intake and sleep.  “The biggest [scientific] advancements have been in the areas of recovery,” Underwood noted.  “That’s why on the international level you’re seeing countries who never had swimmers all of a sudden produce medalists and finalists.”

Post-Training Nutrient Intake

According to Underwood, “The number one recovery factor is post-training nutrient intake.  [It] jumpstarts recovery by as much as 70 percent in the first hour.  Anytime you go through a high intensity practice or competition, your muscles and other physiological systems incur damage.  Taking in the proper nutrients after a workout is critical because you want your muscles to repair from that damage and get stronger.”  Underwood recommends drinking 12 to 16 ounces of Whey protein within the first ten minutes of a workout (which can stop up to 83 percent of muscle damage) along with 75 grams of carbohydrates.


Sleep is the second most important factor in recovery after post-nutrient intake.  In fact, proper sleep adds another 20 percent to the recovery timeline, meaning that you are now 90 percent recovered through nutrient uptake and sleep.  When you sleep, your body is recovering both physically and mentally.  Underwood recommends the “magic” sleep number is nine hours and 15 minutes for elite or growing athletes.  During physical repair, human growth hormone is released, which helps repair any damage done to your body from stress.

Underwood and others working on the Human Performance Project, share some astounding results directly related to sleep and swimming performance through a study on members of the men and women’s swim team at Stanford University.  In the first two weeks of the study, they had participants stick to their normal sleeping pattern.  Afterwards, they increased their sleep to ten hours per day.  According to Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Lab, participants on average had a 0.15 second faster reaction time on their start, improved their turn speed by 0.10 seconds, and even went 0.51 seconds faster on a 15-meter sprint.  Many of the participants set new personal best times and school and NCAA records during that same season.  Long story short, the more you sleep, the better you will perform.

Eat, Sleep, Swim

Make sure you drink plenty of fluids before, during and after practice or competitions.  Drinking water alone will help flush your system and help your muscles recover quicker.  Eat or drink protein before, and immediately following practice or competing.  Chocolate Milk and peanut butter are great sources of protein.  Experiment and find something that works for you.

Get plenty of rest and be on time to practice and competitions.  Mentally and physically, you want to have a clear mind before you place high demands on your body.  Swimming will be much more enjoyable when you can embrace your swims.

When warming up, swim a minimum of 800 meters/yards.  Break this distance down into the following components: 400 Swim Smooth Perfect, 150 Kick, 150 Drills and 4 x 50 Pace Work.  When warming down, swim a minimum of 400 meters/yards Smooth Perfect.  Make sure you wear warm clothing and footwear.  It’s important to keep your muscles warm.  Avoid taking naps between races, you don’t want lactic acid to pool up in your muscles.  Following a weekend of racing or intense training, include a lactate clearance set into your workout.  Swimming 20 x 50 @ 1:00 Smooth Swim Perfect will help you recover quicker and prepare you for your next set or training session.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *