How to Structure Your Race Day Warm-up
by Adam Hodges
You’ve put in the training and now you’re ready to toe the starting line for your race. But one last question remains in your mind: how long should my warm-up be? This question rightly assumes that some sort of warm-up will be important to get the most out of your race.
The warm-up plays an important role in injury prevention and readies the body for the rigors of race-level intensity. Cold muscles are tight muscles; and tight muscles are more susceptible to strains and tears. A warm-up raises the temperature of working muscles. It leads to vasodilation, or the widening of blood vessels, which increases blood flow throughout the body. This also sends more oxygen to working muscles to produce energy to fuel your activity. The speed of nerve transmissions increases, along with the speed and force of muscle contractions. And joint mobility and flexibility are enhanced. In short, a proper warm-up prepares the body to handle race-level intensity from the time the starting gun fires.
As a general rule of thumb, the length of your warm-up is inversely proportional to the length of the race. The shorter the race, the longer the warm-up should be. In shorter races (or even in longer-distance races for elites), the intensity from the start will be high. To be able to match that intensity from the gun, the engine needs to be fully revved up so it can fire on all cylinders. This requires a warm-up that starts early and includes some higher intensity activity to raise the heart rate and get the muscles firing at race pace and faster.
In contrast, the longer the race, the shorter the warm-up needs to be. In longer races (or even in shorter races for novice athletes), the racing distance tends to exceed a day’s typical training mileage. As a result, the intensity from the start is not as great. At these distances, the athlete can use the beginning part of the race as an extension of the shorter warm-up begun prior to the starting gun. This especially applies to long-course racers who need a pre-race routine that provides a light warm-up while conserving energy and muscle glycogen for the long effort ahead.
Regardless of the distance to be raced, there are many pre-race logistics that also take up one’s time on race morning. With this in mind, it is a good idea to arrive 60 to 90 minutes prior to the start. Even if you already picked up your bib and timing chip the day before, you will need time on race morning to get your body marked, set up your transition area, and orient to the flow of traffic through T1 and T2 (not to mention find an available port-a-potty). Also keep in mind that in many races the transition area closes a certain amount of time before the first wave starts — which may or may not be your wave. So plan accordingly and give yourself time to get organized before you have to leave the transition area.
Once you have claimed your spot in the transition area, start your warm-up with a few minutes of neuromuscular activation followed by about five minutes of dynamic stretching. (Find video demos of warm-up activities here.) From there, move into the cardiovascular component. For sprint and Olympic-distance races, it’s good to touch base with all three disciplines. I prefer to do them in reverse order, starting with 10-15 minutes of running, followed by 10-15 minutes of cycling, and ending with 10-15 minutes of swimming. Others may prefer a bike-run order before heading to the water for some swimming. Still others may prefer to simply bike and swim, or to run and swim.
Although the run portion of the race is the farthest off, running still forms an important part of the pre-race warm-up. Running is very effective and efficient at elevating the heart rate and producing a light sweat — two general objectives you want to achieve during the warm-up. Even if you only do a few minutes, it’s also a good confidence booster to know that your running muscles are firing and ready to go. And if you are unable to bike or swim due to logistical issues (such as a closed swim course or not being able to take your bike out of the transition area), running will be an indispensable warm-up activity.
For shorter races, biking should also be part of the warm-up. Depending upon personal preference, this can be done before or after you run. After some easy spinning at warm-up pace, include a few surges of 15-30 seconds in duration to elevate your heart rate to race pace. At bigger or more crowded races, it may be difficult (or simply not allowed) to take your bike out of the transition area once you check in. In that case, you might want to bring a stationary trainer. Remember to always wear your helmet with chinstrap buckled while on your bike (even on a stationary trainer). USA Triathlon rules apply during the warm-up, and you don’t want to get disqualified before the race even starts.
Given that the race starts with the swim, it is best to do the swim portion of your warmup last. After 5-10 minutes of swimming at warm-up pace, include some sprints of 15-30 seconds in duration with ample recovery plus a few minutes of tempo swimming at race pace. The aim is to elevate your heart rate into the zones you will be using at the start of the race and during the swim. This will prime you for the action once the gun goes off.
At some races, be aware that you might not be able to get into the water before the start—either due to course restrictions or cold water temperatures that make it counterproductive to warming up. In those cases, you will need to adapt by relying on running and/or cycling to raise your heart rate and work up a light sweat before going to the starting line.
The specific shape your warm-up takes will depend on how hard you plan on racing, how well you are conditioned for the distance, and the length of the race. If you are a highly competitive swimmer looking to get out front at the start; then your swim warm-up needs to be tailored accordingly. On the other hand, if you are a novice swimmer looking to simply stay out of the fray with a fairly calm, low-intensity swim; then use your swim warm-up to acclimate to the water.
But regardless of your race goals or race distance, you will benefit from some sort of warm-up that readies the body for the race. The key is to find a routine that works for you; then ritualize that routine so you can move through the checklist on autopilot.
Adam Hodges, Ph.D., is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and an American College of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer. He has worked with masters swimmers, high school runners and triathletes of various ability levels. He has been drawn to the multisport lifestyle since he began running at age 10 and competing in triathlons at age 16. As a USA Triathlon All-American triathlete, he has competed in the ITU World Triathlon Championships, the ITU World Duathlon Championships, and the IRONMAN World Championship in Hawaii. Visit alpfitness.com for books, articles and videos to help you train smart.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.