Open Water: What Warm Up?

Two of the most overlooked aspects of performance – especially in open water swimming and triathlon – are warm up and cool down (Part 2 of this series). Too often, athletes spend all sorts of time setting up their transitions, making sure everything on their bike is perfect. Often they swing their arms and legs a bit, maybe even get in a brief jog, and then head to the line up for the swim, often expecting to begin with an all out sprint. It would be the equivalent of climbing out of bed in the morning and immediately going outside to attempt your best ever 100-meter dash! Most of us would never even think of doing such a thing, knowing poor performance and higher injury risk would be likely outcomes of such ill-advised behavior. But for some reason, we show up to swims and do just that.

As humans, we spend the vast majority of our time on land, on our feet. Even the best swimmers amongst us still allow their arms to swing restfully by their sides throughout the day. Our arms and core arguably need the most warming up before a swim, and they’re normally starting from zero. A run will increase body heat and blood flow to these areas, but those specific muscle groups have not been stretched and loaded.

Think back to some of your best workouts in the pool or ocean. Most triathletes and open water swimmers have an aptitude for endurance, so I’d bet some of your best times have come towards the ends of workouts, when you’re exhausted, fatigued, and have already beaten your arms up a fair amount. Few of us can perform at our best completely fresh. If you’ve done the training, don’t be afraid to put in some quality swimming before a race. (Just make sure your total swimming distance for the day is well below your normal daily yardage.)

Warming up on the race course has numerous benefits. You get to practice the turn angles, find what to sight, feel the currents and conditions, and generally get a leg up on all those competitors eyeing you strangely. Practice a moderate start (beach or in-water, whatever the race has in store for you), and then swim easy towards the first buoy. If it’s a reasonable distance, kick up the speed as you draw near, and do an 80% effort turn around the buoy, using the same angle you would want to if you were swimming the entire course. If feasible, get to the final buoy (if different than the first) and practice the last turn at 85-90% effort. After that turn, keep the intensity up for 20 strokes while figuring out what landmark you will use to sight the best line to the finish. Swim the rest in easy.

The downside to warming up at the course is the potential for getting chilled before the race. Here’s where you need to know your body. If you’re in a wetsuit, you have more leeway with the weather. If the water and air temperatures are reasonable for your body and the sun is out, throw on a parka, jog up and down the beach, and do a few arm swings. Try not to leave more than 10 minutes between finishing your warm up and lining up for the race. If the weather is not conducive to a course warm up, there are other methods. It is not unreasonable to go to your local pool, or a pool near the race, and get in 500-1000 yards of quality swimming. Practice sighting, dolphin dives and a few other open water pool drills. If you cannot find a conventional lap swimming pool, a Stationary Cords works great.

If all else fails and you cannot swim before the race without risking mild hypothermia, always pack Dryland Cords in your race bag. Get in a jog on the beach to warm up, and then do some double-arm pullbacks and freestyle pulls to get the arms warmed up. Still make time to scope out the conditions from the shore, and determine your sight landmarks and turn angles.

Then get in there and race!


Jen Schumacher

Marathon Swimmer,

Sport Psychology Consultant,