The underlying premise is that athletes warm up way too much. As we prepare for our key workouts and races, the body is already entering "fight or flight", which means chemicals are already being released into the body to open it up. Ever notice that on race morning your HR is already elevated? That's "fight or flight" at work. In this heightened state, the body needs less warming up to be ready for "go time". It's already piqued for survival. All it needs is a little fine-tuning.
I've tried everything under the sun for warm-ups and these are what I now use consistently both with myself and the athletes with whom I work. While not meant to be exhaustive, this article will provide you with some proven, effective ways to warm up for both workouts and races.
If you swim on your own rather than with a Masters swim team, there's a chance that the warm-up is a place where you skimp in order to save time. One tried-and-true warm-up is the SKPS (swim-kick-pull-swim). One option is do 200 SKPS, which is a 200 of each continuous, with the second 200 S done faster than the first 200 S. Another variation is 6-9x100 SKP, with each time through the SKP getting a little bit faster. In any case, this part of the warm-up is all aerobic.
The second part is where the "opening up" occurs. Here, you can complete 8-20 x 25 Variable Sprint, with the "sprint" aspect being at or slightly faster than race effort. These do not have to be all out sprints to be effective for warming up. The progression is in sets of 4 x 25, done as:
- 12.5 easy / 12.5 fast
- 12.5 fast / 12.5 easy
- 25 fast
- 25 easy
Choose an interval that allows for 5-7 seconds rest between 25s.
Now, you're ready to move on to the main set of your key swim workout.
Since cycling workouts and races tend to be longer, the mentality is that warming up similarly needs to be long in order to be effective. And, with bike racing typically being very dynamic in nature (vs cycling in triathlon, which is more steady state), cyclists tend to try to hit all energy systems and all levels of effort. In the end, this only serves to create needless fatigue.
This warm-up can be done on a trainer or out on the road. The key to it is control. In the example, I'm using an FTP of 300 watts (if you track power, adjust accordingly for your own FTP). If you do not use a power meter, FTP (functional threshold power) relates to your LTHR (lactate threshold heart rate) -- effectively, your power / HR for a 40km TT.
- 5min @ 150-160w
- 5min build by increasing watts each minute by 20w increments (170-180, 190-200, 210-220, 230-240, 250-260)
- 5min @ 150-160w
- 3 x 1min @ 270-280w with 1min @ 150-160w between
- 4min @ 150-160w
Total time: 25 minutes
This is effective for road races, criteriums and time trials. The whole point is to prime the pump, which this does quite nicely, without causing undue fatigue. And, if for some reason you're in a pre-race time crunch, you can complete the first 10 minutes and then head straight to the start line and still be good to go.
More than athletes in the other 2 disciplines, I find that runners most often improperly warm up. Probably the worst offense is to stretch as part of the warm-up. Stretching fatigues the muscles as it elongates them, which negatively impacts the intervals about to be run and opens the runner up to potential injury. Save the stretching for after cooling down or, even better, later in the day as a transition to a relaxing period of time (such as prior to dinner or bedtime).
This example is to be done on the track prior to a track workout. Certainly, it can be adjusted on time rather than distance for a fartlek run on the trails or as a pre-road race warm-up.
- 800m brisk walk
- 1600m aerobic jog, gradually increase effort
- 800m build the straights to 5k effort - cruise the curves easy
Very straightforward, very effective and, all in, should take less than 20 minutes.
Being one of the top-ranked Olympic distance triathletes in the world, it was critical to be ready to race -- and race hard -- from the gun. What made sense to me was to warm-up for the initial leg of the race -- the swim. I didn't need to warm up on the bike or jog around to prepare for the run. The heart would be pumping just fine and the blood would be coursing through the body well enough over mile-long swim. And, the run up the beach to T1 is very frenetic and the hardest adjustment the body has to make over the entire course of the race. You go from lying prone in the water to standing up, which spikes both blood pressure and HR so the body pumps enough blood to your brain so you don't pass out and eat sand. On top of this, you're driving blood from the upper body to the legs as you run for your bike. If all this doesn't wake you up for the bike leg, nothing will.
Warming up can vary to a degree, depending on whether you are starting in deep water or up on the beach and running into the water.
- 5 minutes easy stroking
- 3 minutes of side-kicking + 3 strokes (6-12 kicks on one side, 3 swim strokes, 6-12 kicks on the other side)
- 3-4 x 15-second efforts similar to the opening couple hundred meters of the race, with 45 seconds of easy stroking between
- 2-3 minutes of easy stroking back to the beach
If it is an on-the-beach start, you can also finish up with 1-2 start simulations where you run into the water at moderate speed (not race speed), dolphin a couple times and take 10-12 strokes. Float/paddles easily back into shore and do it again if you feel the need. This is all about orienting the mind to the race start and uncovering anything tricky about the interface of beach and water. For example, maybe there's a sharp dip in the sand when the water still appears shallow. You would want to know this in order to adjust your approach accordingly.
If the water is frigid, the last thing you want to do is get cold so that you are shivering at the gun. You will be tight and constricted, and the opening minutes of the swim will be quite miserable as you try to pull blood from your critical organs and pump it to your working muscles through a straw instead of a garden hose. So rather than close the body up, let "fight or flight" do the majority of the warm-up for you. Instead, wade into calf-deep or knee-deep water, bend over, put your forearms in the water and spend a handful of minutes simulating freestyle and butterfly strokes. It's not ideal, but it limbers up the upper body, is better than nothing and certainly better than shivering yourself into a tightly knotted up ball.
Hopefully, you see the common theme across all these warm-ups. That is, they are shorter and easier than the typical warm-up used by most endurance athletes. Longer warm-ups are counterproductive and serve only to burn up critical matches that should instead be saved for the actual racing.
Give these a shot and let me know how they work for you.