The Four-Step (Dry) Swim Warm Up
While most triathletes focus on training for the run and bike portion of their race, it’s actually the swim that can make or break your day. A proper warm up is key to success—with or without being able to get into the water before your start.
BY MAX BIESSMANN, DPT, RAUSCH PHYSICAL THERAPY
USAT LEVEL I COACH, ASCA LEVEL I COACH, USA SWIMMING COACH
It’s no secret that triathlon is a very difficult sport to find the time to train. Not only do you have to train a large volume to build the proper endurance, but you also have to find the time to train in three different disciplines.
Running and cycling share the most in common, as both are leg-driven sports and make up the majority of your race, and because of this, many triathletes will focus most of their time and effort into training for these two sports. However, I believe that it’s the swim portion of triathlon that’s the most important; a solid swim starts your day off right and sets you up for success for the rest of your event. As the saying goes, “You can’t win the race in the swim, but you can lose it.”
Beating the Rush
As the first of the three events on race day, the swim has an undoubtedly hectic beginning. Everyone is still fresh, nervous, and pumping with adrenaline, which makes for a fast and chaotic start to your day. Still, if you’re looking to place well or find the feet of the right person, it’s important to be able to handle this initial energy surge and settle into your pace after the first 300 to 500 meters.
A proper warm up is crucial to combatting this high-intensity rush so you can avoid overloading your body with lactic acid or excessively tapping into your anaerobic system, which is especially important since you’re about to do an activity with limited oxygen availability.
Fish Out of Water
Most events allow racers to get into the water before start time to warm up their arms and shoulders, get their wetsuit to “settle” onto the body, and acclimate to the water temp, which is especially helpful for those of us racing in So Cal in the cold Pacific Ocean. However, there are several very popular races on the IRONMAN circuit, such as Oceanside 70.3 or St George 70.3, that make it challenging or near impossible to get into the water before the start of the race due to race logistics.
While you should do your best to always get in the water before a race, a “dry swim” warm up using theraband tubing is another great way to get your arms and shoulders ready for the load of the swim. If for whatever reason you can’t get in the water before your race start (or even for your weekly swim workout) this “Dry Swim” Warm Up will quickly activate the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder complex to prepare you to swim at your best.
Four Steps, 10 Exercises: The “Dry Swim” Warm Up
In order to complete this warm up you’ll need a relatively long (3 to 4 ft.) piece of surgical tubing or theraband. Light resistance (green or red theraband) is best, as you’re not trying to load up the muscles or increase strength; this is just get the muscles moving and warmed up. The key is to focus on the speed and quality of the movement.
Step 1 – Complete your usual warm up or pre-race routine
- Start with your usual jog or dynamic stretch warm up to get your lower body and cardiovascular system ready, as these will carry you throughout the entire day.
- Put on your wetsuit so you can check in the morning clothes bags and be ready to go at any point.
- Don’t forget your body glide or lubricant for neck, underarms, etc.!
Step 2 – Get your shoulders ready to move
Begin with a few arm circles, forwards and backwards, both single and double arms. This is a great time to check and adjust the fit of your suit on the neck and shoulders. Make sure to move your whole shoulder complex, including the scapula. Focus on relaxed arms, generating the movement from the trunk and shoulders and preparing the joints for movement.
Then, go on to speed skaters. This involves bending at the waist and swing your arms side to side with a bit of thoracic spine rotation—another key point in being able to swim well. Speed skaters also help by adding a dynamic stretch to your pec muscles and anterior chest. Speed skaters can also be done standing, known as helicopters.
Do each stretch for about 15-30 seconds.
Step 3 – Waking up the shoulder stabilizers
Time to break out the theraband! A light-resistance piece of theraband or surgical tubing is all you need to wake up the muscles of the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers and prepare your shoulder joint for the stresses that will be applied during the swim stroke.
Perform 20 to 30 reps or 30 seconds per exercise.
Internal/External rotations with arm at side
Start with your arm at your side with the elbow bent 90 degrees, then depress and squeeze the scapulas together. For external rotations, move your hand away from the body; for internal, move the hand towards the body.
Standing facing the band with elbows bent about 90 degrees, squeeze the scapulas together and bring the elbows straight back. Make sure to keep the scapulas anchored and depressed the entire time.
Standing on the band, lift the band up to shoulder height with minimal hiking of the shoulder. Flexion is directly in front of the shoulder, and scaption is at about 45 degrees to the side.
With the band looped around a pole, start with both arms crossed and at the opposite hip. While squeezing the scapulas together and keeping your back straight, bring your arms up and out to form a Y shape above your head.
Step 4 – Waking up the primary swim movers
The final step is to warm up the primary swim muscle: the latissimus dorsi muscle. This is the most swim-specific part of your warm up, and it’s a great time to work on the early, high-elbow arm position that’s critical for generating a good catch while swimming. As you move through these next four exercises, focus on the timing of the stroke pulls; start the movement slower and increase the speed through the back of the pull—just as you would with a normal stroke—then control the return (don’t just let the arm snap back to the front.)
Spend about one minute on each exercise; repeat until you’re warmed up and ready to go.
Stand facing a pole with scapulas depressed and controlled pull from about shoulder height down to your hips. Your arms should move in a direct line with shoulders and hips.
Front Quadrant Pulls
Bent forward with an active core and arms out in front of the shoulders, begin a stroke with a good high-elbow position and pull back until about the shoulder. Focus on coupling scapular depression and elbow flexion in order to wake up and perfect the timing of the arm engaging with the scapula moving.
Both arms together do a front quadrant pull, but continue the motion all the way back to the hips. Make sure focus on accelerating the pull from shoulder to hip. Bring arms back out to the front underneath the body in a controlled fashion. Keep the arms controlled while recovering and don’t let them elevate above the shoulder. Do not bounce the whole body; focus on isolating the arms.
Same as butterfly pulls, but one arm at a time. Work on adding a little thoracic rotation. Do the first few with an under-the-body recovery, then you can advance to a more freestyle-like recovery—just be careful of pulling on the shoulder while it’s coming up behind the hip.
This warm up is a great way to help prepare for the swim—with or without being able to get into the water. Make sure to play around with the timing before swimming during normal training; some races will make you wait around a while in a chute before swim starts. Also make the routine your own, you might benefit from more time doing double arm butterfly pulls to help wake up your lats and primary swimmers, or more time with speed skaters and freestyles in order to help open up your stiff thoracic spine. It is still important to get into the water as soon as possible to try and swim if possible, get water into your wetsuit, and acclimate to the temperature of the water. At the end of the day, make sure you practice this and are comfortable doing it before your normal swim training sessions: never try anything new on race day!
Have fun out at the races. Each triathlon is an adventure, don’t lose sight of the journey by only thinking of the destination.
Max Biessmann, DPT is a licensed physical therapist at Rausch Physical Therapy & Sports Performance. He received his Doctorate of Physical Therapy degree at the University of St. Augustine, San Marcos in 2016 and started his career at Rausch PT. Max is passionate about helping people achieve their goals through physical therapy and innovative rehab technologies. As the Endurance Sports PT, Max says he’s lucky to be able to combine his professional coaching experience and PT knowledge to help his patients achieve their personal bests in sports and daily life.