Prime the Engine: Your Optimal Race-day Warm-up

Most athletes and coaches know the value of a good warm-up, but all too often a proper warm-up gets ditched on race day.

Indeed, practically every one of us has plead guilty, at least once, to rushing down to the swim start in time for a quick 50-meter dip, then asking the body to fire on all cylinders at full race pace.
A warm-up prepares the body for racing by increasing blood flow to the muscles, which delivers oxygen and glycogen for energy and performance. Warm muscles are better able to meet the demands of the event right from the start, and, if your muscles are loose and lengthened, it is less likely you will tear or pull something.

Finally, warming up allows you to sharpen your skills and activate your neuromuscular system so you feel coordinated and engaged. Most athletes have drills or routines that help make them feel fast, and including these before a race will better prepare you for a great performance.

An optimal race warm-up routine is individual and event specific. If you are an athlete who swims a personal best for a timed 400 free at the end of a long set, then you likely need a longer swim warm-up to feel activated. People who feel best right at the beginning of swim workout likely need a shorter warm-up.
Swim fitness will also dictate your approach to the pre-race warm-up. If you tire after swimming for 10 minutes continuously, then don't venture out into the middle of the lake on race morning. If you are very fit and comfortable in the water, then a longer swim warm-up of 10 to 15 minutes may be just what you need.

Jump In

Either way, start out with an easy three to four minutes of swimming. Then incorporate three sets of 20 to 30 strokes of up-tempo stroke drills. After the drills, include a few short pick-ups to engage your muscles in a race-specific range of motion and increase arterial blood flow. During these pick-ups, increase your stroke rate and build up your speed.

Finally, if you prefer longer warm-ups, include 150 meters (or 100 to 150 strokes) at 1500-meter race-pace. If you race best off a slightly shorter warm-up, include three or four repeats of 20 to 30 strokes at race pace.

At the end of your warm-up, swim an easy 50 to 100 meters back and, if possible, have a quick look at the swim exit. Finish with a few good exhales and some confidence-building thoughts.

If the air is cold or the water is below about 60 degrees, then getting in prior to the race may actually be detrimental, as the cold water can reduce your core temperature. Instead, create a systematic dry-land progression of arm swings and arm circles, and consider setting up stretch cords to warm up your muscles.

Don't Forget Your Legs

The primary purpose of a pre-race bike or run is to loosen your legs prior to a light stretch. Some athletes have success with a 15-minute easy run done two to three hours before race start. This gets the metabolism going (and facilitates a trip to the washroom).

However, others feel heavy in the swim if they ride or run first. Still others feel ready to ride once they exit the swim if they include a short pre-race ride or trainer session.

To determine your pre-race preference, practice a few different warm-up strategies in training. For example, take your bike trainer to the pool and perform a 10- to 15-minute ride before your swim.

Include two to four minutes of spinning before gradually building to race pace in your aero position. Spend the whole warm-up at race cadence or above.

Alternatively, run two to three sets of drills and strides (building speed over approximately 100 meters to a quick pace).

Race day can be filled with excitement and distractions, so the more you have practiced your race warm-up the more at ease you'll feel with an established routine. Being properly prepared lets you start your race at full throttle. Take notes after your race on how you felt and review your routine.

A race warm-up that has been worked and reworked will leave you confident that your body is prepared for the task at hand.

Thanks to Suzanne Weckend for her contribution to this piece.

Over the past 20 years, Lance Watson has coached a number of Ironman and Olympic champions. Beginner and experienced triathletes can contact him at or visit

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