Should you warm-up before your next triathlon? – New research says maybe not.

  • Author Adam Meisenhelder
  • Published December 14, 2012
  • Word count 610

Having competed in dozens of triathlons over the years, my warm-up is part of the racing ritual, assuring me that I will be loose and fast for the coming race. My personal routine is typical of most racers; light 5-10 minute jog with some short sprints, short pedal on the bike in a low gear to wake the legs up, and once in the water another 5-10 minute mixed-pace paddle. I was always convinced, as are hundreds of coaches and training resources, that the warm-up is as important as any part of the race, and that doing nothing pre-race would be a crime. Then came a new research study by Martyn J. Binnie, et al, out of the Western Australian Institute of Sport examining the effect of different warm-up procedures on subsequent swim and overall sprint distance triathlon performance.

The effect of warm-up on athletic performance is not a new area of research. There have been many studies showing the benefits of a task-specific warm-up, but most for acute bouts of exercise. This study is somewhat unique in that is looks at the effects of warm-up over the course of an endurance event where sub-maximal exercise is performed over a long period. The researchers hypothesized that an active warm-up would be more beneficial than no warm-up at all, and that warm-up specificity, in the form of intensity-specific bursts of swimming, may lead to an enhanced performance in the swim.

The research subjects consisted of 7 in-season competitive triathletes with an average age of 21 years, who had not competed in 2 weeks and were rested 24 hours before each trial. Every effort was made to mimic pre-race conditions including time of race, nutrition, sleep, etc. The testing trials took place in a university setting with the swim in a 25m pool, bike on a cycle ergometer, and run on a treadmill. The protocol required each participant to complete one swim time trial of 750 meters, and three simulated sprint distance triathlons of 750m swim, 500kJ bike, and a 5K run. The warm-up protocol consisted of no warm-up (control group), swim only warm-up, and run-swim warm-up. These were all fairly short in duration to avoid inducing muscle fatigue.

The results of the trials were somewhat surprising to me, and showed that there was no significant difference in performance across the different warm-up protocols, with no warm-up being just as good as the swim only, and combined run-swim warm-up. Great, now I don’t have to get to the race site so early and can just hang out chatting with my friends before the race starts. Not so fast. While this experiment was interesting and quite novel, the conditions were highly controlled and did not include all the elements of true competition – fear, anxiety, pre-race adrenaline, etc. – so let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet. There is very well a benefit to warm-up – the researchers in this study acknowledged this – that goes beyond physical preparedness. It has been well established that a task specific warm-up can prepare us mentally for the coming event, and for something like the swim leg of a triathlon – a source of fear for many competitors – can help to relax the athlete and give them confidence that they are prepared to execute the task at hand.

Although the results of this research may seem like a blow for the warm-up, I like to find the good in it. It was demonstrated that there was no difference in the warm-up, positive or negative, so I say just stick with what is working for you – what makes you feel the most relaxed and mentally prepared for the coming race.