If you’re the type of person who starts workouts flying, or launches into a race without a good warm up, stop it. You’re compromising performance.
If you want to prevent injury, nail your training sessions, and actually perform better in training and racing, you need a good warm-up plan.
Why warming up is important
When you begin a workout, your core body temperature is low, your muscles are stiff and your veins/capillaries/arteries are narrow: not an ideal combination if you’re looking to engage in aerobic exercise. A good warm-up is essential for warming the muscles and priming your system for physical activity. Your hard and soft tissues, circulatory system, and central nervous system all benefit and work better at a higher temperature.
As a 2015 study showed, passive and active warm-ups markedly inﬂuence subsequent exercise performance via increases in adenosine triphosphate turnover, muscle cross-bridge cycling rate and oxygen uptake kinetics, which enhance muscular function.
I like to explain it to my athletes this way: before you warm up, your capillaries are mostly shut and your muscles are cold — like a frozen rubber band. With a good warm-up, your capillaries dilate, allowing for more plentiful blood flow to muscles. This means that your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles increases, leading to superior aerobic performance. And, with that improved blood flow, the muscles become warmer and more supple, potentially lowering the likelihood of injury.
The bottom line: an appropriate warm-up before a race will make you faster and lower the likelihood of injury.
how to warm up
There is some art (but mostly science) to an appropriate warm-up, and what you do within the warm-up is dependent on the subsequent effort you’re preparing for. In all instances, the first thing you should do is engage in 10-15 minutes of aerobic activity in Z1-2. Most of the time, this means easy jogging, cycling or swimming. This warms the body and increases blood flow. If your workout is light (such as a supporting run or ride), you’d be fine continuing the workout at a Z2 effort and gradually building or maintaining intensity. If you have a harder run or running race (tempo run, intervals, etc.), you should engage in drills, dynamic stretching and strides, all of which can increase joint mobility, activate muscles and prime the central nervous system. If you have a hard ride (e.g., VO2 intervals), you should complete a few minutes of brief builds, such as 6X30 seconds hard, 30 seconds easy, to prepare for the harder effort. For swimming, you want to do a pre-set of drills and builds before launching into the main set.
warming up for races
For races, the specific warm-up you do is dependent upon the race distance and your own unique physiology. In general, the shorter the race, the longer the warm-up should be, since you will be going harder from the gun. Following are warm-up protocols that I recommend to most athletes.
Sprint Triathlon warm up
For sprint distance races, your warm-up should be extensive. For most fit individuals who will be exercising in upper Z3-5 for the duration of the race, I recommend a 15-20 minute easy ride with 4X1 builds to around threshold. This should be followed by an easy 10 or so minutes of running and, if possible, a 5-10 minute swim with a couple of brief builds (20 or so hard strokes) to around T-Pace. After this, you should continue to stay loose by engaging in drills and dynamic stretching.
Olympic distance Triathlon warm up
A good olympic distance warm-up looks similar to a sprint warm-up. Cycle for 15 or so minutes at an easy effort, complete a 10-minute run and swim for 5-10 minutes with builds. Follow this with dynamic stretching and drills.
70.3 Warm up
For a half iron, your warm-up should be lighter. Since it’s a long day, you don’t want to burn glycogen with a long warm-up, but you still want to do something to raise your core temperature. Depending on your physiology and the intensity with which you start, a short 5-minute jog to raise the body temperature is sufficient. If you can get in the water, a brief 5-minute swim with builds will be useful to prepare mentally for the swim. Arm swings are essential. Typically, I recommend athletes build into the race. The exception, of course, is for elites who start the race with a 200-300 meter sprint. Fore these athletes, a longer swim warm-up is essential.
Ironman Warm up
In almost all instances, I recommend that athletes forgo an in-depth warm-up prior to an Ironman. The day is long and it’s typically not productive to run or cycle prior. If possible, getting acquainted with the water and loosening up the upper body is beneficial, but don’t stress if you can’t. When your race begins, be disciplined and ease into it. Start at a low Z2 effort and build from there.
Even if you’re time-strapped, you need to warm up. Your body and race results will thank you.
Conrad Goeringer is an Ironman Certified Coach based out of Nashville, TN. He is the founder of Working Triathlete and author of the book The Working Triathlete. His passion is helping athletes of all levels and with all schedules achieve their endurance goals. Reach out to learn more about coaching packages and for a free consultation.