by Matt Dixon, Elite Coach and Owner of Purplepatch Fitness
When I attend races I am always amazed at the lack of thought and effort that athletes put into a proper warm up before the race. Even many of the elite athletes seem to greatly under-prepare for the rigors of competition, limiting any warm up to a gentle jog and a few arm circles, before launching into a high intensity effort. It seems that as the distance of the event goes up, the length of warm up generally decreases, which is certainly a mistake. No mater what level you are competing at, a sensible warm up is a key component to truly prepare the body for your optimal performance.
It begins days prior. It would be foolish to discuss warm up without first referring to the days leading into the race. I think most people understand that it is impossible to gain fitness in the days or week leading up to the race, but this does not mean you should just go easy in the days prior. I generally prefer to ‘touch’ on a building set of threshold efforts about three days prior to the race, have a lighter day two days prior, then do a little work the day prior to the event. I often see athletes be very fit going into a race, but feel flat or unfit on the day. Including a session the day prior, with some building intervals up to race pace, is a sensible addition to the preparation. There is no need to do anything deep, that will leave residual fatigue, but certainly do enough to elevate heart rate and, as well call it, open the engine. This can be scary for many athletes, but as long as you don’t overdo the intensity, and ensure you fuel properly during and following, the results will only be positive.
Initial warm up. In triathlon your first part of a race is going to include at least a couple of minutes of relatively high intensity swimming that can set the tone for the rest of your day. For many athletes this might be performed up to 95 percent of capacity, hence preparation is key. The first step to an adequate warm up is to raise core body temperature, usually done best with jogging / running. The key is to give yourself plenty of time and begin very easy, with light walking, into jogging, then finally some progressive building efforts to elicit blood flow to the working muscles. There is little specificity here, but it will prepare the system for the work ahead. Following this initial warm up, which should be ten to twenty minutes in duration, is a perfect time to take in your first fueling calories. Between breakfast, which should be eaten a solid 2.5 hours prior to race start, and the end of this initial warm up, you don’t need any calories. You can hydrate, with a non-caloric electrolyte drink, in the gap between breakfast and first fuel.
Specific warm up. The first event is a swim, so it is essential to prepare the body for the swim ahead. There is nothing like specificity, and I like athletes to get a significant warm up in prior to race start. The specific warm up might start on dry land, with swim chords (or bands), which are a great way to warm up swim specific muscles, a few rounds of 20 - 25 repetitions of light tension cords is ideal. Once into your wetsuit or swim suit you should then have five to ten minutes of loosening swimming, followed by several building efforts, which last 30 to 90 seconds. Don’t be afraid to hit some intensity, and really get the heart rate up. Most people perform best at least 20 minutes into a swim workout, but fail to prepare to swim well in racing. Following the swim warm up you might be lucky enough to grab one more piece of fuel, then allow the system to settle for three to five minutes before the start.
A few other tips. Of course, it is not always so easy to get a full swimming warm up in before a race, either with restrictions from the race director, or freezing water. In this case, do what you can to maximize warm up with what you have. Ensure that you get the core temperature up prior to the race, utilize swim cords to get the swimming muscles ready, and be as warmed up as possible with what you have available. If the water is really cold, prepare for the shock by dunking your head three times just before the start. It might not be nice, but it does offset your ice cream head ache and provide some familiarization with the conditions before you enter the water.
One thing that a proper warm up does not include is static stretching. Holding the muscles in static positions does little to prepare the system for competition, so skip it and do something worthwhile that will help you prepare!
Best of luck
Matt Dixon is an exercise physiologist, former professional triathlete, elite coach and the owner of the San Francisco-based professional coaching company Purplepatch Fitness. He is coach to numerous professional triathletes and Ironman Champions including CycleOps Powered athletes Chris Lieto, Linsey Corbin, Meredith Kessler, Luke Bell, and Matt Lieto.
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