Podcast, Racing, Science

Race-day warm-up | EP#35

 June 26, 2017

By  Mikael Eriksson

Race-day warm-up | EP#35

How should you warm up on race-day? Is it even necessary to warm up at all.

Let's uncover what the benefits of warm-ups are, how to structure them, and what pitfalls to avoid!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Why you need to warm-up for (most) races
  • How to structure an "ideal" warm-up and a logistically practical race-day warm-up
  • What pitfalls to avoid with your warm-ups
  • How to plan your warm-up intensity, duration, order, and timing


Benefits of warm-up​

01:20 -

1. It reduces the resistance in your body from things like muscle stiffness.​

  • Muscle stiffness can cause as much as 20% reduction in joint resistance if you just proceed immediately to a hard workout hard or race without doing anything in terms of warm-up, compared to if you're doing a proper warm-up.​

2. Increased blood flow and oxygen uptake by the muscles.

  • Oxygen uptake is the responsibility of hemoglobin, the oxygen carrying protein in the blood cells.​
  • Hemoglobin starts to give away twice as much oxygen to the muscles when the blood temperature is raised by 5°C.
  • Warming up increases the muscle temperature by as much as 6°C. The hemoglobin temperature is likely to be increased by a similar amount as well, although there are no direct studies on hemoglobin temperature being increased by warming up.
  • Even so, it is clear that the amount of oxygen that your muscles can take up from the bloodstream and utilize is increased after warming up.

3. Baseline oxygen consumption (VO2) is elevated from the start of the race or the hard main set if you warm up.

  • Increasing the baseline oxygen consumption is a good thing, because that ensures you can maintain an aerobic workload and not go anaerobic from the start, since you have steadily raised that oxygen consumption throughout the warm-up.​
  • Maintaining an aerobic workload ensures you're using less glycogen compared to just going straight into a hard set at an anaerobic intensity. It also feels much better: if you go anaerobic you'll feel like you’re working way too hard from the very start of the race or workout, even though your output (power or pace) is no harder than in the case where you have warmed up and maintain an aerobic workload.

4. A familiar warm-up routine helps you to be mentally and psychologically prepared for the race.

  • We talked about this briefly in Episode 28: Peak Performance - The Science of Success with Brad Stulberg​ in a discussion on routines. It’s important for your performance to have a checklist type routine that includes a warm-up that you do before every single race or high performance output that you need to produce.
  • Having a warm-up that you’ve done before and has worked well for you in the past is something that can be a big improvement in how you approach the race mentally.
  • This mental aspect is something that should not be underestimated because it’s definitely one of the main determinants of racing success.
  • The routines that elite athletes have in their race preparations are incredibly ingrained. They always use the same routines.
  • I encourage you to find one single warm-up routine that works well for you, one that has worked well for you in a race. When you find it, stick to that routine. Try to make it a habit to do just that one routine and it will give you a mental edge in your racing.
  • You should start incorporating your warm-up routine in your training so that you know how to do it without even thinking about it when you get to your race.

5. Reduced muscle soreness post-race or post-exercise.

  • Injury prevention is another potential benefit, but this is up for debate because of conflicting evidence.​
  • But reduced muscle soreness post-race or post-exercise has been shown by research to result from warming up properly.

What pitfalls should you avoid in your warm-ups?

06:41 -

1. Large increases in core temperature.

  • If you extend your warm-up to last for a long duration and especially if the ambient temperature is high, you might also increase your core temperature.​
  • You don't want to do this because it could reduce your potential performance.
  • Especially in long races, keep your core temperature down but your muscle temperature up.
  • A rough guideline is a 20 minute warm-up is enough.
  • Exceptions are for short races when core temperature might not be a limiter.

2. Using a lot of energy during the warm-up.

  • You tap into your precious glycogen stores when you use a lot of energy during warm-ups.​
  • In longer events your glycogen stores will run low or even close to run out.
  • So, you wouldn’t want to use up any more energy than necessary in your warm-up.
  • A way to avoid this is to take on some extra energy during the warm-up or in between the warm-up and the race.

3. General increase in fatigue.

  • The solution for this is to reduce the intensity of the warm-up.
  • Anything that isn’t supposed to be intense during the warm up should be kept very, very easy.
  • The duration is also something that can be reduced.

Duration of a warm-up

10:07 -

  • Some studies have shown that a 10 minute warm-up could be enough to reach that steady state of increased oxygen consumption level.
  • Another study also compared a 16-minute versus a 50-minute warm-up in cyclists, and they found that the 16-minute warm-up resulted in better performance (measured as increased power output).​

Factors that affect the duration of a warm-up

11:21 -

1. Duration of the event

  • As the duration of the event increases, the warm-up duration should be decreased.​
  • For example, in an Ironman or 70.3, many triathletes - unless you’re at the top end of the field - don’t actually need to do much of a warm-up at all. But some very light swimming or just getting into the water in general just to get used to the water and the temperature is highly recommended.
  • If you have a running event or duathlon that has the same duration as a half or full Ironman, there really wouldn’t be much of a reason at all to warm up for most athletes unless you’re at the elite end of the field. The reason for this is that the event has a lower intensity and there’s an increased risk of bonking or running out of glycogen stores if you use that warm-up to dig in into those glycogen stores. Also the increased core temperature that you get in your warm-up could have a negative impact.
  • As a general rule, the cut-off time for what is considered a longer duration event would be 3 hours.

2. Fitness level

  • If you’re more fit, then the warm-up probably will not cause you that much fatigue at all. So, you don’t run the risk of inducing that extra fatigue that will reduce your race performance.
  • In other words, fitter athletes can warm-up more and generally should warm-up more.
  • Elite triathletes that are about to race in a sprint distance race would probably warm up for close to 60 minutes in total to do a 50 minute race.
  • Try different warm-up durations in your training sessions, maybe before a hard brick session. And see what seems to work best for you and what gives you the best performance output without making you feel fatigued in that main set in your training.

3. Ambient temperature

  • Remember that your objective is to warm up the muscles without increasing your core temperature.​
  • There’s really not much research on this topic. But for some general guidelines, let's say we use the 20 minutes as the baseline warm-up duration. If the ambient temperature is very cool then you should increase the duration of the warm-up to around 30-40 minutes in those cold conditions to make sure that you’re muscles are warmed up properly.
  • But in hot conditions, you may decrease it to 10-15 minutes at most so that you won’t put the extra risk of further increasing your core body temperature which will derail your performance by doing an extended warm-up.

Intensity of warm-up

15:16 -

  • ​It should be mostly really easy so you don’t induce fatigue or use up too much of your glycogen stores.
  • Again, the goal is to increase the muscle temperature and elevate the oxygen consumption level while avoiding the pitfalls above.
  • Most research and other recommendations support working at an intensity that is 60-70% of your VO2max or maximum aerobic capacity or oxygen utilization.
  • For fairly well trained athletes, that would be around 70-80% of your threshold intensity. But you can try to see what seems to work best for you.
  • You should also wake up the energy systems that you need and the neuromuscular activation patterns that you need in your race at your race intensity level.

Warm-up protocols

  • ​I want to give one warm-up protocol that I have read about in the book "Triathlon Science" by Joe Friel and Jim Vance who were guests on That Triathlon Show - Episode 1 and Episode 7, respectively.
  • In this book, the recommended protocol is to include 3-5 intervals of 10-30 seconds each at 100-150% of VO2max with long easy recoveries in between.
  • An example would be:
    • Run warm-up: 10 minute easy run, 60-70% of VO2 max, then another 10 minutes with those 3-5 intervals at 100-150% of VO2 max with long easy recoveries in between. A total warm up of 20 minutes run.
    • Swim warm-up: Mostly easy, but include some short, intense efforts like above.
    • This protocol assumes that you don’t get to do a proper bike warm-up at all which is the case in many races.
  • I’ve been doing warm-ups slightly differently. For example, when I did the sprint distance nationals (in Finland) recently, I did my warm-up for quite a bit longer than the  20 minutes, since it's such a short race and I'm fairly well-trained.
    • So I did a 20 minute bike (see my warm-up file here), a 15 minute run (see my warm-up file here) and a 15 minute swim, 50 minutes in total.
    • On the bike and run, I did the 10 minutes easy first but then in both of those I included 3 intervals. And I increased the intensity from the longest interval to the shortest.
      • 1st - 90 seconds, at slightly lower than race intensity.
      • 2nd - 60 seconds, at around race intensity.
      • 3rd - 30 seconds, at higher than race intensity (100% VO2 max).
    • 2 minute recoveries in between these intervals. And it’s the same for the bike and for the run.
Triathlon race warm-up - bike

My Nationals bike warm-up file. Click to zoom!

Triathlon race warm-up - run

My Nationals run warm-up file. Click to zoom!

  • This protocol is not anything that has come up from research studies. It’s contains important elements based on research findings, but it's my own spin on it. As mentioned above, routines are an incredibly important part of warm-ups. Ticking that box and getting that mental edge. And this is a protocol that has worked for me in the past and I think it did it’s job during my race. I was pretty happy with my performance.

Timing and order of the swim, bike, and run warm-up

20:15 -

  • Ideally, you would do a short warm-up in each discipline in reverse order from the race. So first a run, then a bike, and then a swim because you want to do the most specific warm-up for the swim just before you do your actual race.​
  • But this not always practically possible. At least in Finland, we often have a mandatory race info about an hour before the race. Anyway, you have the cut-off times when you need to have everything checked and prepared in your transition area. So I almost always start with the bike and then do the run. So I prepare my transition area and the final bike check in between the bike warm-up and the run warm-up. And then I do the swim as the last part. And I find that it works well by switching the order of the bike and the run.
  • You can eliminate the bike warm-up and still get all the metabolic benefits like increased oxygen consumption baseline level and muscle temperature. It’s just the muscle activation of specific muscle groups that you don’t get quite as much but it’s not too big of a deal, and everybody is going through the same as you do if you have to skip it because of logistics.
  • If you’re race doesn’t allow swim warm-ups, what I would do is substitute that swim warm-up for a stretch cord warm-up. But you must have practiced this during training because, because otherwise you might fatigue yourself totally on this warm-up if you’re using stretch cords for the first time.
  • So what I do now is I do a stretch cord warm-up before every single open water swim workout that I do in order to get used to it just in case I come to a race and I’m not allowed to do a swim warm-up. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure it will happen at some point.

Specific timings of the warm-up

  • It is important to note that the benefits of the warm-up dissipates with time. So if you wait for two hours from doing a warm-up to doing a race, you’re not going to get much benefit at all from it.​
  • One of the goals of your warm-up is to elevate your VO2 (oxygen consumption) level to a higher level compared to what it is during inactivity. But it returns to that baseline level after 20-45 minutes of inactivity.
  • In terms of VO2 level, it would be ideal if the race began within 10 minutes after the end of your warm-up. But this is not usually practically possible. However, you will still get most of the benefits by trying to get the warm-up done as close to the race start as possible.
  • Muscle temperature remains elevated much longer compared to oxygen consumption level, though, for over an hour. So you retain this benefit for much longer.
  • You’re best bet is to try and do broken warm-ups before races, because that is what’s usually logistically possible and practical.
  • For example what I did during the Sprint Distance Nationals:
    • First, a 20 minute bike which I started almost 1.5 hours before the race.
    • Then I put my transition area in order and checked my bike for approximately 10 minutes.
    • Then I went out for a 15 minute run warm-up.
    • Then there was a 15-20 minute mandatory race info.
    • Then immediately after that, I proceeded with my 15 minute swim warm-up.

    Here’s what I did for my swim warm-up:

      • 400-500 meter warm-up.
      • Towards the end, I alternated 10 strokes hard, 10 easy, 20 hard, 20 easy, 30 hard, 30 easy, 40 and then 50, then going back down.
      • Then some more easy swimming.
      • I also added some backstroke during the easy part.
      • And two 50 meter builds - accelerations from slow to fast pace.
      • But again most was easy swimming.​
    • Then I tried to keep active and stay warm on the beach by doing dynamic movements and jogging in place.
  • So that was an example of a broken warm-up where you have rest periods in between, but try not to let them exceed 20 minutes.
  • One final point, you should know exactly the time schedule of your race to be where and when you need to be, and what to do at a certain point as this will allow you to reverse engineer your warm-up but still retaining all the warm-up benefits by trying to minimize the breaks in between.

Links and resources

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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  • This was a great episode, thanks Mikael. I live in Australia and really enjoy your podcasts…I listen on my zone 2 runs, then get home and make some notes. Thanks, David

    • That’s great to hear David! Taking notes is a VERY underestimated art IMO – you learn so much better and are SO much more likely to apply what you learn when you actually take the time to take those notes. So kudos!

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