Race Day Readiness with a Proper Warm-up

Group of swimmers about to go into the water
June 26, 2019

Brad Seng


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“This is where my husband was telling me a lot of my race sucking today was in my prep. I didn’t warm up... it was my first swim in the new wetsuit. I didn’t jog or anything beforehand and just hung out and caught up with my friends I hadn’t seen in a while.” – D3 athlete post early season Olympic race

Race season is well underway with many of you toeing the line in your opening races of the year.  Whether you are training for your first sprint distance triathlon, Xterra triathlon, local duathlon or shooting for a Kona slot, having a pre-planned and specific race day warm-up routine is key to achieving your goals. 

In carving out a warm-up routine there are a few factors for consideration – event length/duration, personal race goals and weather conditions.  The main purpose of the pre-race warm-up is to prime your muscular system, central nervous system and mental/psychological state.  Additionally, the warm-up should be progressive in nature – begin with muscle activation/dynamic exercises, proceed to low intensity aerobic activity (easy jogging) and build the effort to include short bursts at a higher intensity close to or at race pace. 

Below are some examples of a few of my go-to muscle activation exercises which can be easily replicated at the race site and at home before any workout: 

Lateral lunge
Knee hug
Backward lunge with twist
Lat Activation with Swim Stroke Activation (1)*
Lat Activation with Swim Stroke Activation (2)*
Lat Stretch/Activation (1)*
Lat Stretch/Activation (2)*
Over Shoulder Lat Activation (1)*
Over Shoulder Lat Activation (2)*
Over Shoulder Lat Activation (3)*

*Investing in a set of light resistance swim cords/bands is highly recommended.  These can be used prior to the start of races or swim sessions as part of your warm-up.  They are especially useful when you do not have access to the water for a warm-up on race morning.

General guidelines for an effective warm-up

  • Create a routine that works for you.  Elite/professional athletes (in all sports) have a specific warm-up routine and stick with it for a reason.  
  • Be consistent and apply your routine to every event from a local stroke n’ stride or 5k to your goal “A” race.
  • The shorter the race, the more likely you need a longer warm-up to prime the body and mind to match the intensity of the race.
  • Be purposeful with your routine and time it to end as close to the race start time as possible.  This can require some planning and creativity with transition areas closing 30-45 minutes before your assigned wave.

Event Length/Duration

As noted above, a shorter race (sprint or Olympic distance) will require a more thorough warm-up to match the intensity demands of the event.  Having a well-planned warm-up routine will prep the muscular system with increased blood flow and sensitivity to nerve receptors.  A good indicator your body is ready to roll is sweat.  You know the engine is primed once you start sweating, your heart rate has been elevated and your body maintains the feeling of being warm.  Long course events (half IM or IM) still require some muscle activation and priming of these systems, but due to the more aerobic nature of these events, the warm-up can be shorter and limited to 10-15’ of light jogging or easy swimming. 

Race Goals

If you are shooting for an age group podium or Kona slot your body and mind must be prepared to race hard from the outset.  The intensity of the race start will determine how thorough your warm-up routine needs to be.  If the goal is to simply get across the finish line in good order then it is likely your warm-up only needs to include some light activity or mental prep (deep breathing exercises, imagery, etc.) as you ease into the race.  Instead of being driven by performance goals the warm-up in this scenario can be geared more towards the weather/water conditions.

Weather Conditions

If race day brings cooler air or water temperatures, as seen at this year’s IM Boulder with air temp in the upper 40s and a water temp in the low 60s, the body will respond better with a good warm-up.  This will help elevate your core temperature and warm the muscles for activity.  If air or water temps are hot, it is important to adjust the duration and intensity of your warm-up to prevent overheating.  When dealing with cold water, it is often a “shock” to the system when first taking the plunge.  This can lead to an increased heart rate and make breathing difficult.  To help keep this in check, Coach Dave taught me the trick of splashing water on my face and over my head prior to getting in for a swim warm-up or right before the race start.  Our face has a considerable amount of nerve and sensory receptors.  Splashing some water on it helps send a message from the brain to the body of what it is about to encounter and can help reduce that feeling of having your breath being taken away.  Coach Dave recommends building this practice into your swim warm-up regardless of the race distance or weather conditions.


If you find yourself hanging around the transition area on race morning not exactly sure what to do for your warm-up, here are some suggestions for various race distances:

Sprint/Olympic distance

  • Activation exercises such as knee hugs, lateral lunges, leg swings, etc. (5-10 reps each)
  • 15-20’ jog slowly building pace from easy to moderate.  Complete 2x2’ at race pace with 2’ easy jogging between each rep.  Finish with 2-4x30’’ strides faster than race pace with 1’ easy jogging between each.
  • Swim cord activation as pictured above. (10 reps each movement pattern)
  • If you have access to the water – splash water on face and overhead before entering.  10’ easy swimming and towards the end include 2-4x30’’ bursts at race pace with 1-2 minutes easy between each effort.  Practice a few race starts/finishes.  Make mental note of water temp and clarity.
  • Positive self-talk/personal mantra.  There tends to be a strong correlation between the thoughts flowing through our mind at the start line and our performance.

Long course distance (half IM or IM)

  • Activation exercises such as knee hugs, lateral lunges, leg swings, etc. (5-10 reps each)
  • 10-15’ easy jog to elevate HR and get blood flowing.
  • Swim cord activation as pictured above. (10 reps each movement pattern)
  • If you have access to the water – splash water on face and overhead before entering.  5-10’ easy swimming and towards the end include a few short bursts at race pace.  Make mental note of water temp and clarity.
  • Positive self-talk/personal mantra.

Coach Brad Seng notes that if you’re looking to reach new heights in your training and racing, he can help you get there with a consistent, progressive training regime built specifically around your goals and objectives. You will also spend some time working on the psychological aspects of this sport – alongside appropriate swim, bike and run workouts. With that combination firmly in place you’ll find yourself capable of some pretty amazing things!  His coaching certifications can be found here.

Coach Brad Seng enjoys working with athletes of all abilities who set a variety of personal goals. He understands difficult training days. Challenging days and subpar workouts are inevitably part of the triathlon landscape, as are the times when you’re feeling great and everything clicks. He believes there are lessons to be learned from experiencing both. Sometimes having to fight for a workout is just what’s needed to achieve an important breakthrough in mental conditioning.  

Coach Brad is a USA Triathlon Certified Level II, USA Triathlon Certified Youth & Junior, Training Peaks Level 2 Certified Coach and NESTA Certified Sports Nutritionist (National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association).

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