Monday, February 1, 2016

The Art of the Warm Up

by Justin Daerr

A few years ago a friend of mine and I were pulling up to the Gate River 15K in Jacksonville, Florida (fun race for what it’s worth). While we were looking for a parking spot, my buddy pointed out that a dude with a Walkman and basketball shoes was warming up at the same pace as the Kenyans. It was a clear picture of how much spread there was/is from an elite runner’s warm up pace to his race pace.

I see the same thing day after day at Masters swim practice. Everyone is hanging on for dear life through the warm up set only to be left behind on the main set. There might be a bigger issue here (folks swimming in one lane too fast), but that can be saved for another time.

Along the same lines as the Kenyan runners, I have swum in a lane next to Monica Byrn from time to time over the last few years. It is always relaxing to see how casually a fast swimmer will warm up. She takes her time and waits until the main set to drop everyone.

I have no idea how many books have been written about sports, but nearly every one I have ever picked up has a section on warming up, and each book essentially says much of the same thing. I have books by Daniels, Friel, Byrn, McGee, Salo, Colwin, etc. sitting in front of me and all of them can tell you the physiological reasons for warming up. They will certainly do it much better than I can, so seek those authors out if you need to know the science behind a good warm up. I can, however, definitively say that all these authors advocate the use of good warm up.


There are a few rules associated with warming up (according to me):
  1. Do not try to gain fitness in the warm up. Generally speaking, your warm up should be fairly slow relative to the core of your workout; aside from strides, pickups, etc. that prime your body for the faster work ahead. With that in mind, dissociate your mind from the performance of the warm up; its purpose is to get you ready to train so slow down.

  2. Go through the motions of a warm up before packing it in. I was recently at the track with an athlete who told me she was not so sure this was going to be her day. I told her to go through the motions of the warm up like we always do before deciding what is (or is not) possible. She ended up nailing the session. This is a good lesson for race day (or any day) when you might not be feeling up to par when you wake up.

  3. Include short bouts of pace/power above your workout targets. This is where strides, pickups, short sprints, etc. come into play. After some easy intensity to start the warm up, it is a good idea to include some time moving quickly (25s in the pool, 10-30 second pickups on the bike, 50 meter strides on the run) before moving into the main set.

  4. Never warm up less than fifteen minutes.Pretty self-explanatory there.

All of the above information can be applied to warming up for a race or a workout. The rules do not change. However, a triathlon race can be a little tricky since we need to warm up for three sports.

Generally speaking, the shorter the event, the more crucial a good warm up in all three sports becomes. For longer triathlon events (3.75+ hours), the need for a warm up changes a bit because the need to conserve energy comes into play, as does the reasoning behind warming up for a discipline (for example, running) that will not occur for hours.


Below you will find examples of how I approach warm ups for races of varying distances.

Typical warm up for a sprint or olympic distance triathlon:

  • 10-20 minute spin on the bike, running through all the gears and making sure there are not shifting issues. I will also practice putting my feet in and out of my bike shoes as well as dismounting and mounting my bike several times. Then I will include 2-3 x 9-revolution pickups; not full on sprints, but quite a bit of load on my legs. Finally, I will build to threshold power for about 1-2 minutes continuously before spinning back to the bike racks.
  • 10 minute jog (very easy) away from race site. 3-4 x :15 strides with walk back recoveries. After finishing the final stride (and recovery) I will run 2-3 minutes at race effort/pace followed by 2 minutes of walking and another 5 minutes of jogging back to the transition area. However, if it is warm race I will only do a few strides and will do away with the short tempo run and jog. I do not want to overheat.
  • Put wetsuit or skinsuit on and go to swim start. Swim 5-10 minutes easily with any mix of strokes. Then I insert 4-5 x 10 stroke sprints with as much recovery as I want. I end this with 2-3 minutes of tempo swimming followed by another 3-5 minutes of easy swimming. This ideally would finish somewhere within 10 minutes of the race start.

I should note, some people prefer to run, bike, swim in that order for the warm up. That is perfectly okay. I simply find the logistics of this order to work better on race morning.

Typical warm up for a half ironman and ironman triathlon:

  • 10 minute jog (5 minute for IM) followed by 3 x :09 strides with walk back recoveries. Jog or walk back to transition area. No tempo.
  • Same swim warm up as sprint/olympic race.

I do not have a bike warm up listed above, because more and more races of the longer distance do not allow you to take your bike out of the transition area. Also, the easy jogging has more to do with getting my body going (in general) and calming me down before the swim warm up begins. Since the race is usually very early in the morning, I need something that simply wakes me up and tells me its go time.

All of the above resulted from trial and error on my part. Take the time in your training to understand what components of a warm up result in your best training sessions. You will find the same to be true on race day.

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