Triathlon Warmup Strategy

by Bob Dittmann, Kyle’s Bikes 2014 Triathlon Team

Swimming before the start is one triathlon warmup strategy.

Most of my triathlon warmup strategy in the past has involved "trusting my training." This meant spending my pre-race time talking to the merry band of fellows wearing Speedos, ensuring that my transition area was in proper order, and plotting the post-race festivities.

As we are training into race-ready form, a number of us on the Kyle’s Bikes Triathlon Team were discussing ways for us to better our performance and minimize the risks for personal injury. Within this conversation was a strong focus and surprising debate about the usefulness of and strategy behind the "warmup" time before the starting gun goes off.

Not to minimize the value of the positive inspiration gained from camaraderie in an otherwise individual sport, but my prior pre-race strategy has not really helped my results. (But it did help me understand where I have to be to avoid running or cycling behind a guy in a Speedo).

Within our team there is some dissent regarding when that pre-race warmup starts. Does it start with our nutrition strategy? Does it start with our rest routine? Does it start with our taper period? All of these will impact our race preparedness as athletes. However, what I really want to focus on is the time spent pre-race and post-transition setup—that period of time immediately preceding our entry into the water—and whether or not a triathlon warmup strategy should be modified based on race distance.

Triathlon Warmup Strategy Debate

My experience is from sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. As I am training up to my first 70.3 in June of this year, I do intend on incorporating some type of warmup prior to that race. I have observed in the last several years that the population of athletes at the shorter sprint and even some Olympic distance events is those who are either just entering the sport or even just entering into a fitness lifestyle. Which is great! But with limited trust in their endurance base, typically few athletes outside of those competing for the podium spots will ever be seen warming up before the race.

In 2012, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published the results of a limited study of seven age-group triathletes by the University of Western Australia that in fact supported that no competitive advantage was evidenced in either overall performance in a simulated sprint triathlon or in particular the swim “time trial” leg as a result of a 10-minute run-swim warmup strategy prior to the event. The lack of empirical research in the area of warmups prior to swimming events tends to support the views of many triathletes that the swim is the warmup for the bike and run portions of this “three sport” event. With limited data available it is not known if the study and lack of results could have been attributed to the swimmers ability versus their training.

I believe that there are times (especially outside of controlled lab conditions) where any athlete may develop an advantage through a warmup even in a sprint distance triathlon. What about when it is cold outside? As this race is as much about mental focus as it is about physical prowess I would think that the athlete wandering into the water with a warm core body temperature as a result of warming up would be at a distinct advantage over the athlete who stands in line and shivers. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any research able to support such a common sense approach to preparing your race for every element.

Many coaching experts do contend the contrary to the University of Western Australia study, with D3Multisport and AlpMultiSport (Both offer USAT certified coaching and training online by credible and accomplished coaches) contending that more benefit is gained in shorter distance races from longer warmup workouts. In other words, getting into your zone prior to your race. The longer the race, the shorter the warmup! As an athlete with longer distance endurance aspirations, I can get on board with that.

Triathlon Warmup Strategies

Most pre-race warmup routines are based on the athlete arriving at least 90 minutes prior to race time. This offers you many benefits, including bike location within transition and time to correct any last minute “oversights.” (Read Is Your Bike Ready for Triathlon? for our race morning bike checklist.)

Having competed in a number of triathlons, I can say that here in central Iowa (especially when it is raining) not very many of us are there when transition first opens! I usually can get my choice of rack position (if not choice of rack) whenever I show up 90 minutes beforehand and have plenty of time to get in a 10–20 minute pre-race warmer!

Bob plans to improve his triathlon warmup strategy.I am going to give my triathlon warmup strategy more experimentation. From a bike racing background, I have always warmed up prior to competing (whether it be on a trainer or on the road), and I'm beginning to be convinced that using the swim portion of the triathlon as my only warmup strategy for the bike and run has produced insufficient results. I'm also hoping that with a very full season of training and racing with my new team, that incorporating such a strategy will help me to remain flexible and injury free well into the fall! I will be making better use of my “free time” before the race.

Feel free to post your comments or opinions below. I am interested in engaging this as an active dialogue. I want to know your opinion. Do you benefit from a pre-race warmup? Have you experienced a noted competitive advantage as a result of your triathlon warmup strategy? Please share, I am sure many will be appreciative!

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Katherine is our Content Champion. She has done triathlons in the past, and now focuses on mountain biking and long-distance gravel riding. She still has a soft spot in her heart for weird multi-sport events like indoor triathlon and aquabike. She also teaches indoor cycling.

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  • Andy

    Sweet, good article!

    Proper nutrition and a good warm up and go a lonnggg ways!

  • Shawn BT

    Great Article Bob! Some more comments about prerace activities...
    Pre-race meal: I generally eat the same thing every race morning, usually on the drive to the race site. This is usually toast with almond butter, a string cheese, and a glass of juice. I occasionally add a hard boiled egg or some similar variation to the mix. It is important to have some pre-race fuel. I usually eat a banana in transition before the race as well.

    Pre-race warm-up: This varies depending on race length, time transition closes, and race morning temperatures. If the water is really cold I usually skip the swim warm-up and just do a short run. I also enjoy chatting with the racers around me in transition to burn off jitters and have someone to give a shout out to on the race course. For my A races I will generally run part of the run out course (maybe 10 minutes) and then hop in the water for a short swim. It is good to get the bike out of transition and make sure you are geared right for departure however I am kind of lazy when it comes to the bike so I usually just walk it to its spot and call it good. I also take time to get the lay of the land, swim in, bike in and out, and run out. I also avail myself of the facilities.

  • Jacob Johnson

    DCRainmaker links to studies that show, above all else, that cold water swim warm-ups are crazy valuable. They help you get comfortable with the water, keep your heart rate down, warm your muscles, and help you get focused on the task at hand. I'd have to say that I've tried both, and barring some kind of block to getting into the water, I'll always do so.

    Water temp at IM CdA was 61 degrees at it's warmest. I probably swam 200 as a warm up, stood in the water for the National Anthem, got in the corral for a few minutes, and was off. I loved it, because I was used to the water, my wetsuit kept the heat in (I was literally and figuratively warmed up), and I was focused. Huge benefit.


    -- Jake

  • Zoe

    What types of foods are better to eat before or during the race?

  • Shawn Blaesing-Thompson

    Zoe I like to have toast with Almond Butter and a banana prerace. If transition closes a while before the race starts like at Hy-Vee I take a stinger gel and a small water with me to eat right before the start. You have to try things out and see what works for you. I would stay away from dairy or things that are acidic.

  • Scott Carkhuff

    Toasted Bagel, add Peanut Butter and slice a banana.

  • LowB

    As the runner on a relay team I find that in the transition area waiting for your biker, standing with all the other runners, I tend to cool down. I can hop around, stay loose and stretch but I am not sure with the limited space available if there is much else to do. Any recommendations for those of us on tri-relay teams?

  • Christian Baughman

    I've only done the run leg a couple of times. I have found that there is such a thing as over-warming up. I would try to get your warm-up run in as close to the race start as possible, but only do a few short bouts of speed work. Everything else should be high cadence-low exertion. Then some moving stretches (but kickers, high knees, lunges) to loosen up the system. Then stay with your stay loose strategy in the corral.