The Warm-Up: What's Your Plan?

By Morgan Johnson | June 07, 2014, 5:54 p.m. (ET)

warm upWhether you’re brand new to multisport, or you’ve been toeing the start line for decades, everyone can benefit from a well-executed warm-up on race day. Warming up has a wide range of physiological and psychological benefits for athletes, and if you want to meet your race day potential, it’s non-negotiable. If you haven’t already embraced the warm-up, take a look around at your next event for athletes swimming, biking, running, jumping and doing all sorts of other strange things before they even reach the swim start — then get ready to join the party!

Why warm up?
A proper warm-up increases muscle temperature (making for faster contraction and relaxation), increases body temperature (increasing muscle elasticity), increases our range of motion, activates the body’s cooling mechanisms, increases available carbohydrate and fat calories available for energy production, and dilates the blood vessels for increased blood flow. All of these physiological changes allow athletes to start faster and stronger than they would be able to otherwise, while avoiding the potential injuries that can come from diving right in (no pun intended) while the muscles are still “cold.” A good warm-up also provides psychological benefits, giving the athlete a last chance to visualize the race strategy while working out some of the pre-race jitters that inevitably come on race morning.

So what makes a good warm-up?
First, let’s talk length — believe it or not, the shorter the race, the longer the warm up should be. In long course races (half Iron-distance or longer), athletes can spend the first 15 minutes of the race warming up, and still have almost the entire race ahead of them by the time they are warm — not necessarily ideal, but easier to fake. However, in short course races (which generally require a faster start out of the gate and throughout the course of the race), an athlete could be halfway through the bike before his or her body has time to warm up to its physical potential. The ideal warm-up length is determined by the athlete’s individual physical and mental needs. Just like every skill, warm-ups should be practiced, both in training and training races (races other than the “goal” race or races), to determine the most effective length and content.  In the best case scenario, the warm-up will end approximately five minutes before the athlete’s start time.

In general, warm-ups should include all three disciplines, going in the opposite order in which they occur during the race — so, if the race is a standard swim/bike/run event, then the warm-up should go run, bike, then swim. As you might guess, the swim is the most crucial portion of the warm up, since it is the activity that the athlete has to do first; however, do not disregard the bike and run. Activating these muscles and joints ahead of time still gives you an edge when you get to these events. Warm-ups do not have to be just a low-intensity version of each activity . I encourage my athletes to include drills, dynamic stretching, fast intervals and other forms of neuromuscular activation. Athletes can also take this time to visualize the strategy for each portion of the race as they work through that part of the warm-up. This is also a great time to do a final equipment check.

When planning your pre-race warm-up, there are two factors you need to take into consideration. First, what kind of access will you have to the course and your equipment? Second, what is the race distance, and what is your goal? These questions will help determine your warm-up strategy, as discussed next.

Planning around adverse conditions
Ideally, a warm up should consist of a combination of sport-specific drills, neuromuscular activation and actual performance of each activity, going in backwards order as mentioned above. However, race conditions can impede an athlete’s ability to have the ideal warm-up, so make sure you know in advance what resources will be available, and what you can do to make up for any less-than-ideal circumstances. Can’t take your bike out of transition? Find out if you can bring a trainer in while T1 is still open. Can’t get in the water pre-race? Bring resistance tubing for a stroke warm up. Stuck without your running shoes? Find a clear, grassy spot for drills and short strides, or come prepared with an extra pair. Freezing temps? Do your run and swim warm-ups in your wetsuit. Conditions should never affect your ability to have an effective warm-up if you do your research and plan ahead.

Planning around race goals
There are two primary types of races: goal or “A” races and training races. Training races are intended to help prepare the athlete for a goal race, and are a great time to try new warm-up techniques. If you want to see how your body will respond to a certain practice on race day, try it out at a training race. It’s always best to avoid new practices on your goal race day. When your goal race rolls around, it’s time to look at your goals for the day and what has worked best in your training. Make sure you have a plan before race day — it will make your warm-up more efficient and relieve potential mental stress.

If it’s “the big day” and your goal is speed, a PR or a win, a longer more intense warm-up may be more appropriate so the muscles are prepped to go out strong. If the goal is to just finish a long course event, a long warm-up may not be necessary, but a short, dynamic stretch and drill session could be a great way to shake off the long course jitters and get mentally centered. Either way, remember that by the time the big race rolls around, you shouldn’t have to guess at a plan. You want to have tried different elements at races previously so that you have a plan you know works for you.

A note about stretching
At many events, you may see athletes performing what is called static stretching, or a prolonged stretch, before a race begins. While there can be reasons for this kind of stretching prior to an event, in general the goal is to activate the muscles before an event, not loosen and lengthen them. Don’t engage in too much static stretching pre-race, unless specifically instructed by a coach or doctor.

Start planning!
If you have an upcoming event, use it as a chance to test your newfound knowledge. Remember, not every event is an “A” race, and preseason and early season events are the perfect time to fine-tune your strategy for the big day later on in the year. In general, it is better to start with a more generic warm-up, and then make minor adjustments as you find out what works and what doesn’t. A good base for planning a warm-up session is a 5-10 minute jog, 5-10 minute easy to moderate bike and a 5-10 minute easy to moderate swim. Start there, and build in intervals, drills and mental exercises as you progress throughout the season.

As always, best of luck, and happy racing!

Morgan Johnson is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coach, and a USA Triathlon High Performance Team head coach.  She is a former member of Team USA, and currently works as the Playtri Youth and Juniors Lead Coach in Dallas, Texas. She can be contacted for questions at morgan@playtri.com

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.