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How to Create A Pre-Race Warm Up

In last month’s issue of The Catch we looked at the importance of establishing a pre-race plan or routine.  Pre-race plans tend to focus on more general issues, largely on land, that occur in the 24 hours or so prior to race time.  This should not be confused with your pre-race warm-up which is a highly specific routine that you use before your race to ensure that you are optimally prepared to go from zero to 100% effort at the start of your race and then settle into a high-level but sustainable race pace.  Let’s delve into the importance of being optimally prepared for the start of your race and how to develop a plan that is best suited for your unique strengths, weaknesses and needs.  

Why do a warm-up?

Warming up, whether for a race or a workout, is important to both avoid injury and ensure that your paddling is effective right from the first meaningful (read racing or workout) stroke you take. 

Our bodies are incapable of suddenly going from rest to high-level effort and performing optimally while doing so.  Muscles need to be loose and supple before being asked to do intense, repeated contractions.  Our nervous system needs to be, for lack of a better word, activated, so it can effectively control our movement and recruit the optimal number of muscle fibers in our paddling muscles to the actual task of paddling.  Lastly, our aerobic system needs to be activated so that as soon as we begin to try to work, our muscle fibers are already being delivered with enough oxygen to produce the maximal amount of ATP through aerobic means possible.  

Do a simple experiment.  Sit down and relax for a while so that you heart rate is at rest and none of your muscles are being used to produce movement.  After maybe fifteen minutes of being sedentary, get up and quickly do some type of relatively light aerobic activity, like climb a few flights of stairs or go for an easy jog.  You’re likely to find that this light activity, which is usually quite easy and has you barely break a sweat, feels harder than it should.  You’re also likely to feel surprisingly out of breath. 

This feeling of being out of breath at a work rate that should leave you anything but that, is typical of sudden “aerobic” activity done from a sedentary state.  While our aerobic system is a fantastic, seemingly infinite, source of ATP used for muscle contraction, it unfortunately is surprisingly slow to activate and engage from a resting state.  The reason you feel surprisingly out of breath when you get up and do something that should be easy from a resting state is that your aerobic system is not immediately able to produce the energy needed for your movement.  In this case, the ATP required for this movement will need to be produced by another mechanism until the aerobic system is ready to fully engage.  In fact, it is produced anaerobically.  While anaerobic metabolism has the disadvantage of producing lactic acid which is an eventual limiting factor in exercise, it has the advantage or being immediately available.  So, while you’re actually working at a level where sufficient ATP should be easily produced aerobically, since this system isn’t yet ready yet, the ATP is produced anaerobically.  No matter how much you suck air trying to get the oxygen to your muscles to produce ATP aerobically, you’ll be producing most of your ATP anaerobically for the first three to five minutes unless you’ve activated your aerobic system sufficiently before starting intense exercise.  This means that you’ll also be producing larger amounts of lactate than normal, something that you’d rather avoid and could avoid if you’d warmed up properly.   

Clearly, producing large amounts of lactic acid, unnecessarily, is not something that is going to be helpful at the start of a race.  Simply because of the intensity of your effort, you can expect to produce some lactate at the start of your race even if you start with your aerobic system fully warmed up, activated, and ready to produce ATP.  However, you’ll end up producing much more lactate, more rapidly, if your aerobic system is not yet activated and all the ATP required to meet your muscular demands needs to be produced anaerobically for the first few minutes.  Accumulated lactate will actually end up limiting the length of time you can pull hard out of the start simply because you haven’t warmed up properly.  

Beyond the need to activate your aerobic system, activate the neuromuscular control of your paddling muscles, and getting your muscles loose and supple to prevent injury, it’s hard to paddle with the appropriate mental focus going straight “from the couch” to high-level effort.  The importance of being mentally focused and “dialed in” is just as important as being physically prepared.  Since your brain controls your body, being properly focused allows you to feel sharper and more decisive in each stroke you take.  Warming up is a great way to sharpen your paddling focus, and this can go a long way towards helping you paddle more effectively with better connection right from the start.

So, what should an effective warm-up consist of?  

At minimum, you want to do about four minutes of quality level 2 to 3 work shortly before your race to fully activate your aerobic system.  This should bring enough blood flow to your muscles to get them looser and suppler and ready to exert a high-level effort.  In theory, this can be done either on land or on the water.  

Of course, in reality a four-minute warm-up is going to be woefully inadequate.  You really need time on the water to find and optimize your connection and rhythm, and that can take considerably longer than just four minutes.  You need time to lock in your focus.  At a minimum, I would suggest somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes on the water before your event.  However, in my experience, even that seems short to me.  Try taking meaningful strokes immediately after just stepping on your board with no attempt to even warm up on land.  You’ll find it is going to take you five minutes or more just to start to feel like you’re pulling halfway decent strokes with loose muscles, let alone finding your optimal rhythm and connection.  Bottom line, if you’re going to do a really short warm-up on the water, you better start warming up on land before you get on your board.  

Canoe/kayak racing is absolutely the same as SUP when it comes to the need for a warm-up.  Though racing canoe over 1000m on a flat-water course is an entirely different challenge than doing a long-distance SUP race in the ocean, the fact that both are aerobic events and the technical principles of each are so similar means that the warm-up requirements of each are very much alike.  Let’s take a look at two different warm-up models that are common in canoe and that I used over various times in my career.  They both apply equally well to SUP.  The question of which model to use depends on a few things – the circumstances and the time available, and the individual involved and their personal preference. 

The two-stage warm-up

This was my personal favorite when I paddled canoe and a warm-up I used whenever possible for races that really mattered.  

I would try to get to the race course at least fifty minutes before my race.  I’d quickly change and get my boat set up, then paddle slowly to the top of the 2km long course at what would be the equivalent of an easy level 2 effort.  At the top of the course I would turn around and do a 1000m piece at about 75% effort or level 3.  I’d focus on paddling perfectly with optimal connection and rhythm, and I would mentally run through my race plan, hitting all the important points on the race course with race level focus – an “up” from 500m to 600m, another “up” at 750m and then building every 50m over the last 150m.  All of this, from start to finish, would take about twenty-five minutes.  

Then, I would come in off the water and put by boat down, get my lane number for the race and put it on my boat, go to the washroom if necessary, and then stay warm in the back of the boathouse by stretching and keeping moving.  This gave me time to get out of the sun and get a drink of water.

Then, ten to fifteen minutes before the race start, I’d get my boat and head back to the water.  How long I left it before getting back on the water usually depended on how hot it was.  On hot days, I’d go out closer to ten minutes before the race, on cooler days closer to fifteen minutes.  I’d paddle easily up the course past the start line and then do a few really hard pickups or even a start.  I’d listen for the starter’s instructions – “5 minutes to start”, “3 minutes to start”, “1 minute to start, please approach the start line” – and slide into my lane, ready to go.  

This warm-up almost always worked great, leaving me ready to explode out of the start and settle comfortably into an aggressive, but sustainable, race pace.  I’m convinced this warm-up works great for SUP as well, provided you’ve got the time to do it.  Some race organizers don’t let you on the water until just before the race.  To do this warm-up, you’ll have to get out early, come back in, change into your racing clothes (especially if you got wet in your warm-up) and then get to the racers’ meeting.  From there, it’s usually five to ten minutes to the start. 

The one-stage warm-up

I used this warm-up in situations where I couldn’t get to the course in time for a longer two-stage warm-up.  Often, at international races, our travel to and from the course was at the mercy of the organizing committee, which didn’t always understand the needs of the racers. So, sometimes we were in a bit of a rush before the race.  In these situations, you just did the best you could. 

This warm-up would involve going out on the water twenty-five to thirty minutes before the race and staying out there until the race start.  I’d have to get my boat set up first and get my race number, change into the clothes I was racing in, and then hit the water.  

I’d paddle high up the course past the start line, turn and do my level 3 warm-up piece.  Sometimes this would be a full 1000m, often less.  The key was to paddle at least three minutes at a solid level 3 pace with optimal technique and rhythm.  Then, I would do a few really hard accelerations and await the starter’s instructions.  

Basically, this warm-up is a condensed version of the two-stage warm-up, which doesn’t allow you the chance to get off the water, find some shade, go to the washroom, and get a drink.  

This warm-up can work in SUP as well, however there is the complication of the racers’ meeting which often occurs, on land, about ten minutes before the race start.  You’ll have to come off the water for that.  

Developing your own warm-up

The two examples of warm-ups provided above accomplish everything that you need before racing – they activate your aerobic system and the neuromuscular control of your paddling motion.  They help get your muscles warm and supple, ready for maximal effort.  They provide you with a chance to establish on optimal connection and paddling rhythm and lock down your mental focus.  These examples also serve as templates for warm-ups that you can use as a starting point in developing your own personalized warm-up.  

Warm-ups are highly individual things.  The last thing you should do before your biggest, most important, race is a warm-up that someone else does.  While it is better than doing no warm-up at all, what you really need to do is use a warm-up that is best for you, one you’ve tested time and time again in training and before races of lesser importance.  You want to be confident in the knowledge that what you are doing is the very best warm-up you can possibly do for you.  

So, where do you get started?  Each week you probably do anywhere from four to six paddling sessions.  At least two of them are likely what we’d call “high intensity” consisting of work that approaches race level effort.  These sessions provide you with the perfect testing ground in which you can develop your own warm up that is optimized to best meet your own personal needs. 

Use one of the two templates I’ve provided as a starting point and go from there.  Before each intense session, do your warm up, modifying it slightly each time and then carefully assessing how you felt at the beginning of the workout.  Did the warm up did leave you ready to give your very best, race quality, effort right from the beginning of first work piece in the workout?  Take notes each time, detailing exactly what you did in your warm up and how well it worked.  Over time you’ll be able to weed out things that don’t seem to work for you and zero in on things that work really, really, well.  These are the things that should become the elements of your ideal pre-race warm up. 

I cannot overstate the importance of getting a great warm up before racing or doing a hard workout in our sport.  It’s not just about being ready to work hard and avoiding injury.  It’s about performance.  

Obviously, sprint racing requires you be ready to absolutely blast out of the start and go as fast as you can go.  There’s no margin for error and, if you’re not ready to literally explode off the start with error free paddling, you won’t be successful.  But if you think about it, distance racing is no different.  

With drafting being such a big factor in our sport, if you can’t get out quickly on the start and be level with your peers, how are you ever going beat them?  Think about it.  If you fall significantly behind someone who is the same speed as you in the first five minutes or so of a race, how are you ever going to catch up to them?  They’re the same speed as you.  You actually need them to implode or make a serious mistake if you’re going to get back in the race.  

On the other hand, if you’re properly warmed up and prepared to go really, really, hard off the start and for the subsequent five to ten minutes, you’re almost certain to get out with your peers or even be ahead of them.  When the pace settles, you’ll be right there to settle into the draft train in order to get a brief rest if needed and, if you were actually ahead of the others, you’ll be putting real pressure on them right off the start.  Having a great opening ten minutes in a race is a huge advantage, and it won’t happen if you’re not properly warmed up and ready to literally go 100% all out right off the start.  


Warm-ups are important and should be highly personalized to be effective.  You can’t expect to just show up on race day and do the ideal warm-up without any preparation in advance.  You’ve got to use your more intense training sessions to experiment with different warm-ups in order to determine the exact routine that leaves you most ready to race.  This can be a fun and interesting process, and it is likely to make those workouts better as well.  If you’re serious about your racing, or even if you just want to have better workouts, I strongly suggest you spend some time developing the warm-up that works best for you.

Happy paddling!


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