The Perfect Warm Up
Right before a race or a workout, the last thing you want to do is tire yourself out. Your primary objective is conserving energy for the test/workout ahead. It’s hard to imagine a better way to sabotage this than doing a hard workout moments before the race begins.
Starting a race/workout immediately after you roll out of bed wouldn’t turn out very well, either. A certain amount of activity is required to prepare the body for intense exertion. Most athletes find a happy medium by doing a gentle warm-up that consists of slow/easy swimming, biking, or jogging (depending on what sport they are about to do) and perhaps some stretching. But research has shown that the most effective pre-race or workout warm-up also includes small doses of specific kinds of intense activity. Adding these elements to your warm-up routine will help you perform better in races and gain more benefit from each workout.
There are three distinct ways in which warming up prepares the body to work. The first of these is suggested by the very name of the practice. The muscles function most efficiently when they are warmer than they are at rest. A good warm-up raises the temperature of the muscles so they’re ready to work at maximum efficiency before the real workload starts.
In 2009, Chinese researchers designed a clever study that separated the warming effect of warming up from its other effects and highlighted its importance. Eight volunteers underwent a test of muscle performance on three occasions. On two occasions, their muscles were passively warmed for 15 minutes beforehand, once with heat packs and once with ultrasound. On the other occasion, the subjects completed the muscle performance test without prior muscle warming. They performed significantly better on the two occasions when their muscles were warmed.
If warming the muscles were the only benefit of warming up, then you could do it passively, the same way the subjects in the Chinese study did. But there are a couple of other benefits of warming up that require activity.
The second benefit of warming up is what we might call metabolic priming. When you start moving quickly at the beginning of a race, there’s a lag period when your breathing rate and the balance of food types used by your muscles gradually adjust to the activity level of your muscles. After this period of adjustment, your breathing rate and choice of muscle fuel stabilize at the appropriate levels.
A good warm up eases this transition. As a result, your muscles rely less on inefficient anaerobic metabolism throughout the race. Studies have demonstrated that low-intensity and high-intensity warm-ups are equally effective in this regard.
It’s not just the metabolic system that needs to be primed for racing/training though. The neuromuscular system does as well. Optimal performance depends on efficient two-way communication through nerves that connect the brain and the muscles. A good warm-up opens up these lines of communication and sends an initial message to the brain to prepare for exertion.
Light swimming/biking/jogging is not sufficient for neuromuscular priming. I call this a dynamic warm up to keep it simple, but can be split into two categories of more familiar names: mobility exercises and plyometrics. Mobility exercises are a cross between moving stretches and bodyweight-strength movements. The walking lunge is one example. Such actions serve to reduce internal inhibition, or resistance, in the performance of sport-specific movements such as the running stride, making them more efficient.
Plyometrics are jumping exercises. Running itself is a form of jumping, and it becomes more plyometric in nature when it’s done at high intensity against some form of resistance, such as a hill. Plyometrics boost subsequent running performance through a mechanism known as post-activation potentiation, which is a fancy way of saying you can jump higher after you’ve already jumped at least once.
For running, these are a little more straightforward; the mobility movements still apply very well to swimming and biking pre workout. Swimming will have a little more focus on the upper body. Instead of plyometrics, drills that build intensity within the actual workout serve to make this neuromuscular connection. An example in swimming would be 4 x 50 as 25 build, 25 smooth. This allows you to start to ramp up the intensity slowly but also wake the body up a bit for the specific movement you’re wanting it to do. On the bike, this might be spin-ups, or single leg drills. Again, it is waking the body up to make an efficient movement.The effectiveness of mobility exercises and plyometrics as warm-up tools has been experimentally proven. In a 2008 study, Indian researchers had 15 volunteers run to exhaustion on a treadmill after completing each of four different warm-ups on separate occasions: light jogging only, light jogging followed by static stretching, light jogging followed by dynamic stretching, and light jogging followed by mobility movements, which started at low intensity and ended at high intensity. On average, the subjects were able to run for 27:41 after the warm-up involving mobility movements, compared to only 18:19, 21:45, and 23:45 in the other three trials.
More recently, scientists at the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand compared the effects of warm-ups with and without a plyometric element on running performance. On one occasion, 11 well-trained runners performed a warm-up consisting of 10 minutes of light jogging followed by six 10-second “strides” (relaxed sprints) before completing a test of running economy and a run to exhaustion at incrementally increasing speeds. On a separate occasion, the runners completed the same warm-up while wearing a weight vest equal to 20 percent of their body mass and then performed the same running economy and exhaustion tests.
The results were striking, considering how small the difference was between the two warm-up protocols. In the trial involving the weight vest, the runners exhibited 6% better running economy and attained a 2.9% greater running speed at the point of exhaustion. These improvements were associated with a 20% gain in leg “stiffness,” which refers to the legs’ ability to capture and reuse energy from impact with the ground.
The perfect warm-up will do all three things it’s supposed to do to prepare the body for hard racing: warm the muscles, kick start the metabolic system, and prime the neuromuscular system.
In short, this will look slightly different in each sport:
Swimming: Dynamic warm up + easy swimming + progressive warm up. (I personally like to sit in the hot tub before I swim since it’s right there, and the pool water is cold, this helps achieve a better pre-dynamic warm up, just like the research showed above.)
Biking: Dynamic Warm up + easy biking + drills or short builds in intensity. For a race or hard workout, that might look like 3 x 1’ hard, RI 1’ easy.
Running: (Optional, I like to spin on a stationary bike for 5 minutes easy first) + dynamic warm up+ easy jogging + plyometrics (If time is a little limited, I put some light plyometrics right at the end of my dynamic warm up, and then move right to starting my run. For a race, easy jogging first, then coming back to the plyos is better.)
Before a triathlon race, I suggest some or all of this. A minimum would be a dynamic warm up + light jogging. Next, if you’re unable to get on your bike before the race (this happens in bigger races a lot), I would suggest a run and then swim warm up if you’re able to get in the water, and it’s not freezing out. (Remember, we are trying to get the muscles warm, so if you get in and then have to get back out and stand in cold air, that’s not going to help). The last thing you would do is swim, so your muscles are primed for swimming, which is the first movement you will do.
Now, if you’re able to get on your bike, I like a different format. Dynamic full body warm up + bike specific warm up (easy ride + pick ups) +run specific warm up (jog + plyos) + swim warm up (easy swim + pick ups) = ready to race fast!
So, what’s this dynamic warm up look like? Glad you asked!
Begin with gentler movements and progress to more intense ones.
I’ve provided links to the warm up moves that can be tricky. Most of them are straightforward and the name tells you how to do them. If you’re still unsure after reading through and watching the video, please ask. I hope to put together my own series of all the moves so you have it in one place, but until then, this will make sure you’re on the right track.
Trunk Twist – Extend your arms straight outward to the sides and gently rotate your torso to the right and then to the left, keeping your arms in line with your shoulders. Twist 10 times in each direction.
Walking High Knees –Walk, lifting your knee as high as you can with each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.
Walking Butt Kicks –Walk with your thighs locked in a neutral position and try to kick yourself in the rear end with the heel of your foot on each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.
Reverse Walking Lunge – Take 20 large steps backward (10 per leg), lowering your leading thigh until it’s parallel to the ground with each step. (This can be done standing in place if you have limited room)
Forward Leg Swing – Stand on your left foot and perform large, moderate-pace kicking movements with your right leg, as though you’re kicking a soccer ball. Complete 10 kicks and then do the same with the left leg.
Side Leg Swing – Stand facing a wall or fence, lean forward slightly, and brace the fingers of both hands against it. Stand on your left foot and swing your right leg from side to side between your body and the wall/fence. Swing from the hips, keeping your leg straight. Complete 10 swings and then do the same with the left leg.
Hurdle Walks (Forward and Backward) pretend there is a hurdle (like a track hurdle) in front of you and you have to step over the top of it. But it’s not directly in front of you. It’s slightly to the side of you. You have to lift your knee up high and over the side of it before bring your knee back in front of you.
For backwards, lift your knee straight up and then out, around and back. Just do the forward in reverse order.
Knee Huggers –Alternate pulling your knee to your chest without leaning over. Hold for a second or two, then step and switch to the other leg. (10 holds each leg)
Ankle Bounce – Hands on the wall/fence and lean into it. Contract your calf muscles and lift your heels off the ground, then drop your heels back to the ground. Repeat this action 10 times in a bouncing rhythm.
High Knees – Run in place, lifting your knee as high as you can with each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.
Butt Kicks – Run in place with your thighs locked in a neutral position and try to kick yourself in the rear end with the heel of your foot on each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.
Step 1: Cross your right foot over and in front of your left foot with your arms out to your sides.
Step 2: Step open and out to the side with your left foot.
Step 3: Cross your right foot behind your left foot.
Step 4: Continue moving laterally, and then repeat the movement in the opposite direction.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4PhOJQrUcw) Side Shuffles (Sliding sideways with arms going over your head as you skip) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MLNgiDlwhQ
Plyometrics / Run Specific Drills
Running High Knees Run in place, lifting your knee as high as you can with each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.
Running Butt Kicks Run in place with your thighs locked in a neutral position and try to kick yourself in the rear end with the heel of your foot on each step. Complete 10 steps per leg.
Short, fast skipping Skip with very short but quick steps for 20 steps each leg. Keep good running form, arms at 90 degrees, and drive your elbows back quickly. You should be popping off the ground on each one of these skips. Think more for height, rather than for distance. You might not travel very far.
Strides or pickups: 3-6 efforts at 80 to 90 percent of your maximum speed and lasting 10 to 15 seconds each. There’s no need for a weight vest. You can get the same effect by doing the odd-numbered strides on a slight uphill. If you don’t have access to a hill, flat strides are still effective, just not as much