by Ian McMahan
The search for the perfect race remains elusive and drives many to constantly strive for the best equipment, coaching and training strategies. Making it more difficult is that many of these aspects of competition are determined by trial and error with a very limited sample-size, you.
One such activity is the warm-up, a pre-race element that most triathletes devotedly include without really knowing how much or how hard to warm-up. A proper warm-up is a valuable piece of the competition puzzle and shouldn’t be left to chance. Nailing the right parameters can mean the difference between effectively using the time to get faster or hurting performance if the warm-up is done incorrectly.
Some of the benefits of warming up include; increased muscle temperature and blood flow and improved anaerobic and aerobic capacity. Without getting too scientific, a proper warm-up is the physiological switch that increases the body’s potential to exercise hard. A good warm-up also appears to reduce the chance of muscle soreness after exercise.
Despite the many clear benefits of warming-up, the potential downside is going too long or too hard. When the warm-up crosses the line between warm-up and workout the triathlete can expend valuable energy stores, leading to fatigue that may actually harm performance. Research from the Journal of Applied Physiology with trained track cyclists showed a traditional 50-minute warm-up resulted in reduced performance when compared to a shorter 20-minute warm-up. As fatigue is relative to fitness, the amount of warm-up that will generate excessive fatigue can vary by fitness level.
Not surprisingly air temperature is also a consideration when determining the ideal warm-up duration. When competing at races in hot environments raising core temperature before the race can contribute to an already elevated body temperature and may lead to overheating during the race. During hot events the duration of the warm-up should be shortened, while for races on cool days, a longer warm-up may be needed raise core temperature.
As the length and duration of a triathlon increases, the need for a warm-up is reduced because of the lower average exercise intensity associated with longer events. In events over 3 hours the triathlete can treat the first 20 minutes of the race as a warm-up. For shorter Olympic or sprint distance races, the need for high-intensity efforts is required from the beginning of the race, making a pre-race warm-up essential for optimal performance.
Warm-up time should be long enough to realize the benefits but short enough to avoid overheating and fatigue. For endurance exercise an ideal warm-up appears to about 20 minutes in duration. The duration of the warm-up should be fine-tuned with the criteria of event length and temperature in mind.
The warm-up should be performed at an intensity of 70-80% of maximum HR (60-70% VO2max) with 4 brief 20-30 second intervals of higher than race intensity speed. These intervals are needed to activate muscles and prepare the body for race intensity. Preferably the warm-up will include 5 to 10 minutes of running and swimming (as cycling may be difficult to include) and be timed so that racing begins within 10-minutes of the end of the warm-up.
While many include a warm-up as part of a pre-race routine, few triathletes structure the activity for maximum benefit. As evidenced by the research on track cyclists, the traditional approach may not be ideal and in some cases may actually result in reduced performance. Like any other aspect of competition, a warm-up used for racing should be practiced and used in training. Do it right and you’ll be warmed up, not burnt out.
Next up: The taper week-does it help?
Ian McMahan is a San Francisco based athletic trainer and freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology