Most athletes have heard at some point that they should warm-up before a race, but how many really do? And of those that do, how many are doing an effective warm-up? From my experience, plenty of triathletes are missing essential parts of a pre-race warm-up that could make some little, but important differences while out on course.
Why should I warm-up?
Increase muscle temperature: as the name suggests, a warm-up gets us warm. This not only feels better once we start higher intensity exercise, but also benefits us physiologically with oxygen transportation improving with higher muscle temperature.
Elevated heart rate: by pre-emptively increasing our heart rate prior to race start, we don’t force our body to suddenly jump from our low, resting heart rate to the high heart rate required while racing.
Increased oxygen consumption: by getting moving gradually in the warm-up we allow our oxygen consumption to steadily rise, rather than causing a sudden, sharp increase in oxygen needs. This allows for a more comfortable transition into race intensity exercise.
Psychological preparation: by using the same, or very similar, warm-up routine before each race and major training session you can prepare yourself mentally by taking yourself into a familiar movement pattern that tells your body it is time to perform. Triathlon performance is hugely impacted by our mental state and using a warm-up routine to calm and focus our mind can be extremely beneficial.
Injury prevention: this point is one of contention as there is conflicting evidence, however some athletes swear by a warm-up to keep niggles at bay. Specific muscle activation exercises can be incorporated if required, as well as dynamic stretching of muscles.
When should I warm up?
As mentioned above, one of the goals of a warm-up is to increase oxygen consumption to allow a steady transition into the race. After 20-45 minutes, the increase in oxygen consumption that occurs during your warm-up returns to normal levels, and you lose this specific benefit of the warm-up. Triathlons involve a lot of logistics on race day, and they will commonly get in the way of your warm up, so my advice is aim for the ‘best case scenario’.
Ending your warm-up within 10 minutes of your race start would be ideal, however it is likely you will have to aim to finish your warm-up as close to race start as you can. Staggering your warm-up across the morning may be a good option, such as riding prior to checking your bike into transition, completing a run prior to race briefing and your swim just before race start.
What should my warm-up include?
Easy exercise: the warm-up should allow for a gradual increase in heart rate and oxygen consumption by starting easy, and should avoid fatigue by maintaining an easy intensity.
Very short high-intensity intervals: in order to avoid fatigue, any high intensity intervals should be kept short and specific. For example, during your swim warm-up you may include three quick, 30 stroke sprints to match the hard effort you may use upon entry to gain a space in the water. It is important to practice these in warm-up simulation prior to race day.
A mix of disciplines (swim, ride and run if possible): a swim warm-up is generally the first priority as this allows you to adjust to the water temperature and get your arms moving; however it is ideal to include a mix of ride, run and swim where possible. Sometimes restrictions around bike check in, or no athletes being in the water can prevent certain parts of a warm up, and it is therefore important to have a backup plan. A great idea is to bring two pairs of runners – one to be checked in to transition, and one to warm-up in prior to getting started.
Muscle activation exercises: Some basic exercises can be beneficial in ‘waking up’ your muscles prior to racing. it is important to consult an appropriate health professional to ensure you are completing the appropriate exercises.
Dynamic stretching: stretches that are held in one position should be avoided during a warm-up, therefore any stretching should occur with movement and should not cause any strain or extreme discomfort.
What should I avoid in a warm-up?
Excessive duration: a warm-up of 10-20 minutes should be sufficient to achieve increase oxygen consumption, increase in muscle temperature, and allow for each facet of the warm-up to be completed. As the duration of an event increases, the duration of the warm-up should decrease to ensure energy stores are not depleted during the warm-up. Also note that the better trained an athlete is, generally the longer they can warm-up for without affecting their performance. For a new or untrained athlete, it is better to stick to a short, but effective warm-up to prevent any pre-race fatigue.
High intensity exercise for the whole duration: the warm-up is exactly that – it should involve low to moderate intensity exercise, that does not lead to fatigue before the race has even started.
Static stretching: evidence has shown that static stretching actually reduces performance in certain situations, therefore it is best to combine stretching into dynamic activities during your warm-up.
Okay – so what warm-up should I do?
As with every other part of this sport, one approach does not suit all. Your warm-up should be specific to you and your fitness level, the race distance, potential injuries, weather conditions on the day and what is available to you on the day. The best way to approach this is to trial different warm-ups prior to big training sessions (especially brick sessions) to see what works for you. Our next article outlines some possible race-day warm-ups for you to try out and tweak to suit you!