Friday, July 4, 2008

Beginners' Guide: Warming Up

Race day warm up is a highly individual, very personal affair. You can only discover the most effective method of pre-race routine for yourself through lots of racing, lots of trial and error. Unfortunately, your warm up is vitally important to your succes in any event. Does that you'll suck hardcore at every race you do until you find some magical formula for a calm, thoroughly-lubricated race-day routine? Um, maybe. But I'll try to give you a good enough starting point in this post that you'll not only not suck at your first (or next) event, you'll also be well on your way to establishing a warm up routine that works for you. So I'll give you a few reasons why you should take the time to warm up, share the routine that works best for me, and then add some suggestions as to how you can tailor that routine to your own needs.
Warming Up: Why Bother?
There are two basic reasons you should warm up. The first is physiological. Warming up gradually increases blood flow to the muscles, which become looser and more elastic. It primes your muscles and nerves to do what they need to do. It lubricates your joints, muscles, and connective tissues. Swimming, biking, and running cold puts you at an increased risk for injury. It allows the gradual (vs. sudden) increase of metabolic processes, which helps prevent an early accumulation of lactic acid and an early onset of oxygen debt. In other words, if you're properly warmed up, you're less likely to get the feeling that you went out too fast (and spend the rest of the race asking "Why am I doing this to myself?!"). The second reason is psychological. Warming up allows you to prepare your mind for competition, to run through strategies like self-talk that will help keep you sane (and moving) when your body says, "That's it; I'm done." Warming up gives you time to isolate yourself with your goals and think on what it is you want to accomplish.
The Time Frame
I begin my warm up about an hour from my wave start, if possible. First I give my bike the once-over, make sure the brakes are in place, cables are tight, chain is clean and lubed (which it should have been already, because you did that last night, right?), and so on. I practice my mount (shoes already on the bike) and wiggle into my shoes, just like I would do during a race. I try to ride for 20-30 minutes. Gradually getting my legs adjusted over the first 5-10 minutes, then settling into race speed. I try out different gearings, get in and out of the saddle, tuck into aero, and do a few sprints. As I reapproach transition, I shift to the gear I want to start in (if you're not sure, underestimate; better to start off in too low a gear than too large a gear). I practice my dismount and run into transition. Change shoes as quickly as possible, then take off for a quick run.
I prefer to do my run warm-up as a brick, because--duh--that's how I plan to do the race. Focus on beginning this warm-up in the same way that you would begin running off the bike in the race: keep a quick turnover, focus on good posture, find a rhythm as quickly as possible. Your metabolic and cariorespiratory systems--not to mention your legs--will already be fairly warm, so you don't have to be as concerned with starting slow and building up to pace, but avoid going all-out during this warm-up period. I try to run for 10 to 15 minutes.
I save the swim warm up for last. Ideally, you want a good 10 minutes of warming up, but at many races that's not possible. So do what you can with what you have. In ideal conditions, I like to start with a warm up that's similar to the first part of my swim workouts: 100 easy, 100 kicking, 100 IM (this is the key, for me), and 100 at a more moderate pace. In a lake or the ocean, just do a couple minutes of each. Your warm up is also a good time to check for any obstacles in the swim entrance/exit (I once had a friend cut her thumb pretty badly on the boat ramp at Wildflower's swim exit) and look for landmarks for sighting purposes (make sure you know where you're going!). I try to time my swim warm up so that I don't have to get out of the water before the start. Again, this isn't always possible; do what you can with what the race gives you.
Fine-tuning Your Plan
Although I feel like I have a pretty solid warm up strategy at this point, I also strongly encourage you to use my suggestions only as a starting point. For some, this warm up will be exactly what you need; for others, it won't work at all. But there's so much involved in your first (few) races that there's no need to stress out over what the heck you're supposed to do in the 90 minutes between when you've arranged your transition area and when your swim starts. As you race more, you can experiment in some of the following areas to find a warm up that you can rely on.
  • Order of activities: There's nothing to say that your warm up should follow a bike-run-swim progression; you can reasonably follow any pattern you want. You could just run, or just bike, or just swim. Maybe you prefer to do your warm up in exactly the opposite order of the race. I would say, however, that you're probably going to get the most out of swim warm up by having it immediately before you start swimming.
  • Length: The longer your event is, and the longer your workouts leading up to a race have been, the longer your warm up should be. For example, most of my bike workouts last less than two hours. If you regularly ride four or five hours at a time, you're going to need a longer, more gradual warm up. The same warm up probably won't work for both of us. The same distinction can be made along the lines of intensity. A short, anaerobic race will require a longer, more gradual warm up than a primarily aerobic effort. And (I have no scientific data to back this up but) different athletes with different constitutions and different strengths are going to need different warm ups. Like I said before, it's an individual thing. Don't be afraid to go out for a 30-40 minute ride, as long as you keep the progression of low intensity to race pace (and don't do more than a minute or two of race pace at a time, with plenty of rest between efforts).
  • Level of interaction: Know what? Some people don't like to talk while they're warming up, or while they're setting up transition, or while they're hanging out at the swim start. If you're one of those people, know it, and put yourself in situations that will allow you to be alone with your thoughts without being rude.
  • Finally, here are a few other resources I found on warming up pre-race:
Caveats and Additions
One thing I haven't talked about is stretching, drills, and dynamic warm ups. Should you use them? Yeah, sure. If you have the time and the energy, it certainly won't do you any harm, as long as you remember to stretch gently. Stretching the day of the competition probably won't drastically increase your range of motion, but even if you can loosen your muscles slightly (particularly the hip flexors, hip rotators, quads, and calves) it'll benefit you biomechanically. The more important thing is to work on adequate flexibility during your whole season. For my part, I like to do a few sun salutations before a race, as sort of a pre-warm-up, to focus my attention and warm my muscles. Especially appropriate if the sun is actually coming up.
As to drills, I like to throw them into my swim and run warm ups; just remember to keep the intensity low at the beginning and gradually ramp up over the course of your warm up.
One last thing: I've had some unfortunate situations where other athletes have arrived to transition after me and moved my equipment while I was out on the bike. First off, if you really want to avoid that, bring your trainer and use that instead of heading out on your bike (although I personally am not so anal about my transition space that I find it worth the extra energy of hauling my trainer to a race). If this happens to you, whatever you do don't get snippy with the other person. Just be friendly and reasonable. And by no means should you ever let someone get under your skin before a race! Just remember that you can't control their actions (or attitude), and move on. In the long run, having to readjust your area isn't going to make a huge difference in your results, but getting worked up over what someone else did just might.
Information and suggestions on triathlon-specific warm ups were surprisingly hard to find. Everyone seems to agree that it's a necessary thing, but no one has much to say about the practicals, the specifics. I hope this article fills that void a little bit, and provides you with a valuable starting point for that next race. Once more, keep in mind that these suggestions serve only as a starting point, and from here you still need to put in the work and reflection after races to figure out if a warm up worked for you, if it helped, and whether you might be able to improve upon it next time. 
Feel free to ask any questions in the comments or via e-mail!