With an abundance of distractions, knowing what to focus on day in and day out to become a better swimmer is everything. Not being aware of what to do before, during, or after swimming can be devastating to long-term performance and success if not addressed.
That’s why in this article, we take a look at some practical things every swimmer should be doing before, during, and after their swimming workouts to make sure they are getting the most out of their training and will be ready to swim fast come race day.
It might not be necessary to do every one of these daily, but I highly recommend doing as many as possible to maximize your chances of success in the pool.
If you find you don’t have time for everything, try alternating so that you at least get all of it in over the course of a training week. That said, some things like warming up and eating properly should be done every day.
What to Do Before Swimming
Here are some of the most important things to do before swimming-
- Make sure to warm up properly.
- Have a pre-workout snack or meal.
- Take a nap before swimming practice.
- Plan your swimming workouts beforehand.
- Visualize training sets or races.
Warm-Up Properly: Dynamic Stretching, Activation, and More
Before getting in the water (and doing any exercise, for that matter), it’s crucial always to warm up properly.
Many coaches will include some easy swimming at the start of a workout as warm-up. But I believe it will significantly benefit any swimmer to do a more extensive land-based warm-up as well.
It doesn’t have to be much, 5-10 minutes will be plenty for many swimmers and will nicely complement your swimming warm-up.
That said, you can do up to 20 minutes if you have the time for it or feel that a longer warm-up will benefit you. (I do a 20-minute land-based warm-up before swimming).
An ideal warm-up should include a combination of dynamic stretching, activation exercises, and mobilization.
Dynamic stretching and mobilization include movements such as leg swings or arm circles- the key is that these aren’t static movements like your typical stretches, which aren’t recommended for warming up.
In fact, a review by the University of Alabama has shown that static stretching before training can decrease physical performance and poses no reduction in the risk of injury. (I recommend doing static stretching after training, but more on that later).
On the other hand, activation exercises include light exercises to get blood flow going in muscles and increase your heart rate. This can consist of exercises like skipping, jumping lunges, resistance band rows, band pull-aparts, etc.
That said, simply foam rolling is also a great way to warm up and mobilize muscles. Some swimmers also prefer to do light yoga for warm-up, which is completely fine. Combining foam rolling and yoga with dynamic stretching and/or activation exercises is also very effective for warming up.
Fuel Your Training with a Pre-Workout Snack or Meal
Fueling your body with the proper nutrients can make a world’s difference to your training. If you haven’t eaten well before exercise, you risk feeling fatigued, light-headed, or nauseous. Additionally, it may cause your focus to wander away from training due to low blood sugar.
Having a pre-workout meal is a critical aspect of ensuring proper performance in the water by helping you to train at your maximum. Nutrients like carbohydrates are broken down by your body to form glucose used during cellular respiration to create ATP (energy) for your muscles while exercising.
Generally, you should have your pre-workout meal around 2-3 hours before training, while you can have a light snack around 30 minutes to an hour before swimming. Ensure plenty of carbs and a small amount of low-fat protein.
Additionally, it’s essential to ensure you are well hydrated before swimming. A good guideline is to have two glasses of water with your meal 2-3 hours before. That accounts for about 16 ounces or roughly 400ml-500ml of water.
If you have a snack 30 minutes beforehand, then 1 glass of water accounting for around 8 ounces or 200ml-250ml of water is ideal.
Ensuring proper pre-training nutrition will result in better swimming results in the long term.
Take a Nap to Recharge Before Hitting the Pool
Taking a nap before training might not always be possible for everyone as our busy schedules often get in the way. That said, multiple studies have proven that naps can enhance physical and mental performance in athletes.
One such study published by the American College of Sports Medicine found that a 30-minute nap helped overcome cognitive and physical deterioration in performances caused by either lack of sleep or fatigue from training.
Another Gatorade Sports Science Institute study had similar findings, concluding that napping is a practical way to enhance performance.
Furthermore, a more well-known study conducted alongside the Standford swimming team found that increased sleep allowed swimmers to improve their 15-meter sprints by 0.51 seconds while reaction times improved by 0.15 seconds. This is a significant improvement considering it was only 15-meter sprints.
Napping could thus be a helpful tool for getting in some extra sleep and reaping the performance benefits in the pool. Additionally, enough and quality sleep will help you not only to perform and recover faster but also accelerate the learning of motor skills worked on during training.
Keep in mind, this is something you can use both on training and competition days to give your swimming a boost.
Plan Your Workout to Ensure Swimming Success
Planning your workouts is something simple and easy but can be very useful in helping you know what to focus and work on in the water to become a faster swimmer.
Get a piece of paper or notebook and write down 3-5 things you want to work on in training that day or week. It could be anything from underwaters, turns, breathing patterns, or a particular technical aspect of your stroke.
You don’t need to make a new list every day. Read through what you have written down previously before training every day to ensure you actively know what to work on in practice. That said, I would recommend writing it out as well, as this forces your mind to focus on what you need to do instead of just passively reading it.
It’s a simple yet functional and practical tip that will take you less than 5 minutes and can make a big difference.
Visualize Your Races or Training Sets
Visualization is a mental skill that I highly recommend all serious swimmers practice daily. It’s also something used by countless successful Olympians, one of which, the great swimmer- Michael Phelps.
I would visualize the best- and worst-case scenarios. Whether I get disqualified or my goggles fill up with water, or I lose my goggles, or I come in last, I’m ready for anything.
– Michael Phelps.
Visualization is something I neglected for a large part of my swimming career, but it works wonders in helping you swim fast both in training and competition by allowing you to prepare to execute the perfect race or training set mentally. In fact, research has even shown that it can make you physically stronger as well.
Visualization takes practice and time to master (just like swimming!). It might also come slightly harder to some than others. But with practice, anyone can become better at this skill.
Ideally, you should practice making your visualization as close to reality as possible for maximum benefit.
This means using your senses to create as vivid a picture in your mind as possible. For example, you may see the big pool stretched out in front of you, feel your heartbeat, hear the crowd scream, etc.
Taking 5-10 minutes before (or after if you prefer) training to visualize a specific set or race(s) will help you execute it more effectively when the time comes while also being prepared for any adversities that may arise. You can visualize for more extended periods or do multiple sessions per day as you get better.
I prefer doing my visualization as a separate activity after training. But you can also do it while you are going through your land-based warm-up beforehand- it’ll just require a bit more focus.
There is, however, a common misconception among many athletes and coaches that visualization alone is equal (or even better) than physical training itself which is completely false.
Does it help? Does it let you learn things faster? And indeed, the answer appears to be yes, it can. However, despite what you’ve heard, it is not as good. It is not a total replacement for physical performance itself.
-Andrew Huberman (Stanford Professor of Neurobiology).
While it’s true that visualization holds massive benefits, it should instead be looked at as a powerful tool to supplement your training and help you be more prepared. However, it’s not and never will be a total replacement.
Research has shown that visualization alone can increase physical strength anywhere from 13.5%-35% depending on the muscle group, while physical training increases strength by 53%.
This means that although visualization isn’t a replacement for physical training, it can help to compound the effects of your training and help you progress faster.
What to Do During Swimming
Here are some of the most important things to do during swimming-
- Stay hydrated and have a sports drink.
- Work on your swimming technique and skills.
- Work hard and push your limits.
Stay Hydrated and Have a Sports Drink on Hand
Dehydration can cause significant fatigue, which affects both your physical and mental performance state. That’s why it’s important to stay fueled and hydrated at all times- especially during a challenging practice.
We also already discussed the importance of being hydrated beforehand.
Water alone will be enough if your workout is an hour or less. But if you are training for longer, it’s crucial to have a sports drink on hand as well.
Sports drinks will provide you with carbohydrates for energy and minerals to replace lost electrolytes from sweating when you swim. Gatorade and Powerade are good options for sports drinks (but avoid the low-calorie types).
If those drinks aren’t available, look for drinks that provide the following per every 8 ounces (~250ml): 14 grams carbohydrates, 28mg potassium, and 100mg sodium. Look that the carbohydrates are from sources such as glucose, sucrose, and/or fructose, as your body quickly absorbs these.
Also, avoid carbonated ‘sports drinks’ and energy drinks- these aren’t ideal and will most likely upset your stomach and cause a crash in energy during your workout.
A general guideline is to have 4-6 ounces (~100-200ml) of fluid every 10-20 minutes while working out to keep your muscles hydrated. To make things easier, you can fill a bottle(s) with the right amount of fluid for the duration of your workout beforehand. Then make sure to take sips at regular intervals throughout your workout.
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Stay Focused: Hone Your Swimming Skills and Technique
Staying focused during your swimming workouts is one of the most significant contributors to success in the water. I’m not saying you have to be 100% focused at all times, every day- that simply isn’t realistic- we all have days where we are going to be distracted.
The key is to be as focused as possible for most of your swimming workouts. This will help you make significant improvements in your swimming by being more aware of what you are actually doing in the water and then adjusting that to become better as you learn what works and what doesn’t.
An easy technique I use to stay focused during practice is to work on something specific each workout- or a few things sometimes. Remember- we discussed planning your workouts earlier- well, it comes into play here.
For example, I’d focus on counting my strokes during cool down and getting it as low as possible for maximum efficiency, and during main set, I might focus on doing 3-4 dolphin kicks off every wall. Other times I might focus on technical aspects like hand entry, kicking, or body position- these things keep your mind focused on what you are doing and initiate progress.
Being focused during practice will also give your mind a chance to shut out all the noise and drama of everyday life- giving you a much-needed reset every day where you can just swim and have fun.
Work Hard, Push Your Boundaries, Enjoy Pain
Another significant contributor to swimming success is working hard in the pool. This might sound obvious- but it’s something that flies over many swimmers’ heads.
You see, showing up to practice is all good and well- and in fact- is a great place to start.
However, if you want to see real progress, you will have to push your limits in training as well- showing up alone, unfortunately (especially for experienced swimmers), simply won’t be enough.
You need to learn to be courageous and face pain during tough sets. Don’t be afraid to give your everything- the worst that can happen is you feel sick or nauseous- maybe you throw up. The point is you’ll survive.
If the coach gives you a tough interval- try to hold it for the entire set. If you do stand-up sprints- don’t hold back, give everything you have start to finish. Soon enough, you’ll realize that during these hard sets, your body adjusts, and at some point during the set, the feelings of pain and sickness will fade, and you’ll start feeling better again.
Furthermore, in the long term, you’ll also be building up a higher lactate tolerance, allowing you to train much harder with the same (or sometimes less) pain.
Also, it’s important to note that when I’m referring to pain, I am talking about the sensation of burning and fatigued muscles- any experienced athlete knows this feeling very well. There is a distinct difference between this type of pain and injury- know the difference- be smart and seek professional help if you are injured!
What to Do After Swimming
Here are some of the most important things to do after swimming-
- Cool down properly to get rid of lactate.
- Sit with your eyes closed for a short while for accelerated motor learning.
- Have a post-training snack and meal.
- Do static stretching or foam rolling to help recovery.
- Get some sleep or take a nap.
Cool Down Properly: Goodbye Lactate
After your swimming workout, the first thing to do is cool down properly. And yes- you are still in the pool at this point. Cooling down usually involves swimming easy and relaxed anywhere for about a 400-800, although you can do more if needed.
I recommend mainly swimming backstroke or freestyle during your cool down- breaststroke is still acceptable- but you should avoid butterfly as it’s a highly intensive stroke. Do at least half of your cooldown backstroke, but feel free to do more if you’d like- especially if backstroke isn’t your mainstroke.
Cooling down will allow your body to get rid of lactate and other muscle wastes that will make you sore and tight later on.
Sit with Your Eyes Closed for a Short While
In a podcast episode regarding motor skill learning on the Huberman Lab Podcast, Andrew Huberman- a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology at Standford School of Medicine, discussed what you should do directly after training.
And then after the session, you need to do something very specific- which is- nothing.–Andrew Huberman.
These findings come from a review published by separate researchers in the Journal of Neuron.
The reason for this is that directly after a training session where you’ve learned any type of motor movement, there’s a replay of the motor sequence that you performed correctly and an elimination of the motor sequences that you performed incorrectly.
If you were to sit and do nothing for 5-10 minutes, the correct motor sequences would then start to be run backward in time in your brain. Why backward? Well, we don’t know. One thing is clear, though- this backward replay seems to be important for the consolidation of motor skill learning.
In swimming, these motor sequences would be technical aspects such as hand entry, body position, or other skills you may have been working on like diving correctly, underwater dolphin kicks, etc.
According to Huberman, however, the key is that you can’t bring in a lot of additional new sensory stimuli.
Therefore simply taking 1 to 5 to 10 minutes just to sit down, eyes closed, focusing on nothing will help you to more rapidly learn (and improve) motor skills that you worked on during training.
Furthermore, Andrew believes that this process of sitting with your eyes closed and allowing these sequences to start playing is equally as important as the mental skill of visualization we discussed earlier in this article.
Fuel Your Recovery with a Post-Workout Snack and Meal
We discussed nutrition and hydration before and during your workout. Now it’s time to discuss post-training nutrition.
Firstly, it’s critical for you to consume a snack within the first 30 minutes after training. This should be a combination of carbohydrates, protein, and liquids. Some examples are low-fat chocolate milk, fruit with yogurt, or a rice cake with peanut butter.
If your snack doesn’t contain liquid, make sure to have at least 1 glass (8 ounces/ 250ml) of water with it as well.
I highly recommend packing your snack beforehand and eating it directly after your workout when you hop out of the pool.
The next step is having a proper meal. You should do this within 2 hours of having your recovery snack. Include plenty of carbohydrates, enough protein, vegetables or fruits, and healthy fats. Also, as always- make sure to drink enough fluids.
Make Sure to Do Static Stretching or Foam Rolling to Aid Recovery
Recovering properly after workouts play a big role in helping you train hard continually. Nutrition plays a prominent role in the recovery process, but there are other things that you can (and should) be doing as well which will aid recovery.
Two of my favorites are static stretching and foam rolling.
Static stretching is an effective method for developing flexibility and avoiding injuries but shouldn’t be overdone. I recommend doing 15-20 minutes of static stretching after your workout.
Try to do it as soon as possible after your workout when your muscles are still warm to gain maximum benefit and avoid injuries.
Choose a few stretches and perform them for 30 seconds each. According to a study published in the Journal of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation, 30 seconds is the most effective duration to hold a static stretch for developing flexibility.
On the other hand, foam rolling is a form of deep facial muscle release. This is also effective for getting rid of lactate, loosening tight and sore muscles, and temporarily improving flexibility.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology determined that foam rolling had positive effects on alleviating muscle soreness when athletes performed the procedure after their workouts.
Hit the Bed: Get Some Sleep (A Nap Will Do Too)
As we already discussed at the beginning of this article- sleep provides significant advantages to both physical and mental performance.
If your workout is later in the day, it might be a good idea to get to bed soon after that. If earlier, a nap will also give you some rest to get through the rest of your day- especially if you have another workout later.
How much should you sleep exactly? In the study we discussed earlier involving the Stanford swim team, swimmers were getting about 10 hours of sleep every night, which proved to have significant performance benefits.
Furthermore, many Olympic swimmers such as Nathan Adrian have also been known to sleep somewhere in this range of hours.
At training camp, I’ll sleep 10 to 12 hours a day because it’s eight-plus at night, and then a two-hour nap between practices, and then whatever I can scrounge up later.
– Nathan Adrian.
Other Things to Do Before and After Swimming
Here are some other things unrelated to swimming success and performance that you may want to do before and after swimming.
Put on Sunblock to Protect Your Skin
If you are fortunate enough to swim outdoors in the warm sun for the majority of the year (like me), putting on sunblock before hopping in the water is an excellent way to take care of your skin and avoid the risk of skin cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, but higher is better. You may also need to reapply sunscreen after swimming if you plan on spending more time outdoors.
Have a Shower and Wash Your Hair with Swimmer Shampoo
Both fortunately and unfortunately, there are a lot of chemicals in our swimming pools. I say fortunately because these are vitally important for keeping us healthy and avoiding nasty infections and sicknesses, but they tend to damage our skin and hair.
Taking a shower after training is an excellent way to get rid of these chemicals, while using a swimmer shampoo will help remove these chemicals from your hair, keeping it healthy and avoiding your hair from turning green if you’re blonde like me.
It’s Important to Know What to Do Before, During, and After Swimming
Being well prepared to train, knowing what to work on during your swimming workouts, and ensuring proper recovery after swimming can do wonders for your swimming performance throughout a season.
This extra preparation will help you break plateaus and swim best times at your big swim meets. Also, it will ensure you avoid injuries if you make sure to warm up, cool down, and mobilize appropriately before and after swimming.