In the final week before your target race, your mantra should be “sharpen, hone, and rest.” I typically schedule a day off two days prior to the event. It takes about two days for the body to catch up with what you do—whether in terms of rest or a workout. So if you hammer intervals two days before your race, your body will feel the maximum effect of those intervals (in terms of fatigue) on race day. Likewise, if you rest two days before your race, your body will reap the maximum rewards of that rest on race day. The same goes for a good night’s sleep and a good dinner. Focus on the night of sleep and dinner two days before your race.
Then, use the day before your race to do a short warmup in each discipline. This loosens you up and shakes off any cobwebs from the day off so that you are ready to go come race morning. These warmup workouts also give you an opportunity to do a final equipment check and potentially to run through the transitions if they are open. Avoid the temptation to “race” those workouts. You may have lots of energy and be eager to race. But remember, these should be easy warmups with a few alactics to get the muscles moving and heart rate firing a bit. Given the excitement that often surrounds the pre-race day expo, you might be better off doing your workouts away from the race site. Also, this probably isn’t the best time to hook up with new training partners unless you are adamant about following your own pace and achieving what you need to accomplish in those pre-race day workouts (rather than getting caught up in an overly competitive “warmup” the day before the actual race).
Race Day Warmup
You’ve put in the training and now you’re ready to toe the starting line for your race. But one last question remains in your mind: how long should my warmup be? This question rightly assumes that some sort of warmup will be important to get the most out of your race.
The warmup plays an important role in injury prevention and readies the body for the rigors of race level intensity. Cold muscles are tight muscles; and tight muscles are more susceptible to strains and tears. A warmup raises the temperature of working muscles. It leads to vasodilation, or the widening of blood vessels, which increases blood flow throughout the body. This also sends more oxygen to working muscles to produce energy to fuel your activity. The speed of nerve transmissions increases, along with the speed and force of muscle contractions. And joint mobility and flexibility are enhanced. In short, a proper warmup prepares the body to handle race level intensity from the time the starting gun fires.
As a general rule of thumb, the length of your warmup is inversely proportional to the length of the race. The shorter the race, the longer the warmup should be. In shorter races (or even in longer distance races for elites), the intensity from the start will be high. To be able to match that intensity from the gun, the engine needs to be fully revved up so it can fire on all cylinders. This requires a warmup that starts early and includes some higher intensity activity to raise the heart rate and get the muscles firing at race pace and faster.
In contrast, the longer the race, the shorter the warmup needs to be. In longer races (or even in shorter races for novice athletes), the racing distance tends to exceed a day’s typical training mileage. As a result, the intensity from the start is not as great. At these distances, the athlete can use the beginning part of the race as an extension of the shorter warmup begun prior to the starting gun. This especially applies to long course racers who need a pre-race routine that provides a light warmup while conserving energy and muscle glycogen for the long effort ahead.
Regardless of the distance to be raced, there are many pre-race logistics that also take up one’s time on race morning. With this in mind, it is a good idea to arrive 60 to 90 minutes prior to the start. Even if you already picked up your bib and timing chip the day before, you will need time on race morning to deal with logistics—for triathletes, you will need to get your body marked, set up your transition area, and orient to the flow of traffic through T1 and T2 (not to mention find an available port-a-potty). Also keep in mind that in many races the transition area closes a certain amount of time before the first wave starts—which may or may not be your wave. So plan accordingly and give yourself time to get organized before you have to leave the transition area.
Once you have claimed your spot in the transition area, start your warmup with a few minutes of neuromuscular activation followed by about 5 minutes of dynamic stretching (see dynamic warmup videos). From there, move into the cardiovascular component. For sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, it’s good to touch base with all three disciplines. I prefer to do them in reverse order, starting with 10 to 15 minutes of running, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of cycling, and ending with 10 to 15 minutes of swimming. Others may prefer a bike-run order before heading to the water for some swimming. Still others may prefer to simply bike and swim, or to run and swim.
Although the run portion of a triathlon is the farthest off, running still forms an important part of the pre-race warmup. Running is very effective and efficient at elevating the heart rate and producing a light sweat—two general objectives you want to achieve during the warmup. Even if you only do a few minutes, it’s also a good confidence booster to know that your running muscles are firing and ready to go. And if you are unable to bike or swim due to logistical issues (such as a closed swim course or not being able to take your bike out of the transition area), running will be an indispensable warmup activity.
For shorter races, biking should also be part of the warmup. Depending upon personal preference, this can be done before or after you run. After some easy spinning at warmup pace, include a few surges to elevate your heart rate to race pace. At bigger or more crowded races, it may be difficult (or simply not allowed) to take your bike out of the transition area once you check in. In that case, you might want to bring a stationary trainer. Remember to always wear your helmet with chinstrap buckled while on your bike (even on a stationary trainer). USA Triathlon rules apply during the warmup, and you don’t want to get disqualified before the race even starts.
Given that the race starts with the swim, it is best to do the swim portion of your warmup last. After 5 to 10 minutes of swimming at warmup pace, include some short sprints with ample recovery plus a few minutes of tempo swimming at race pace. The aim is to elevate your heart rate into the zones you will be using at the start of the race and during the swim. This will prime you for the action once the gun goes off.
At some triathlons, you might not be able to get into the water before the start—either due to course restrictions or cold water temperatures that make it counterproductive to warming up. In those cases, you will need to adapt by relying on running and/or cycling to raise your heart rate and work up a light sweat before going to the starting line.
The specific shape your warmup takes will depend on how hard you plan on racing, how well you are conditioned for the distance, and the length of the race. If you are a highly competitive swimmer looking to get out front at the start; then your swim warmup needs to be tailored accordingly. On the other hand, if you are a novice swimmer looking to simply stay out of the fray with a fairly calm, low intensity swim; then use your swim warmup to acclimate to the water.
But regardless of your race goals or race distance, you will benefit from some sort of warmup that readies the body for the race. The key is to find a routine that works for you; then ritualize that routine so you can move through the checklist on auto-pilot.
Summary of the Base-Build-Peak Progression
Base training develops your aerobic foundation as you gradually increase your training volume. The bulk of your training is done in the lower aerobic zones. To that, you add alactics, drills, and functional strength training. As you progress in your base training, add higher intensity aerobic tempo, or sub-threshold work.
As you move into the build training phase, volume levels off or decreases while you focus on increasing intensity in the form of threshold and anaerobic workouts.
The peak training phase covers the last several weeks prior to your target race. Maintain frequency of training while reducing the duration of those workouts. The aim is to sharpen and hone your race readiness through a balance of intensity and recovery.
TRAINING GUIDE CONTENTS
– Train with a Purpose
– The ABCs of Systematic Training
– The R&R of Training
– Begin with the End in Mind
2. Exercise Science Concepts
– Overreaching and Overtraining
– Energy Systems
– Aerobic Capacity
– Lactate Threshold
– Aerobic Threshold
– Muscle Fiber Types
3. Monitor Your Training Intensity
– What is Training Intensity?
– Key Indicators of Intensity
– Using Training Zones
– Training by Feel, or Perceived Exertion
– Training with Pace
– Training with Heart Rate
– Running with Power
4. Create Your Training Plan
– Prioritizing Your Events
– Overview of the Training Phases
– Choosing Your Periodization Schedule
– Filling in the Details of the Overall Plan
5. Create Your Weekly Workouts
– Creating Weekly Schedules
– Establishing and Developing Your Base
– Building Upon Your Base
– Peaking for Your Target Event
– Race Week and Race Day Warmup
6. Functional Strength
7. Recovery and Nutrition
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