The importance of a good warm-up
Updated: Apr 10
You see more and more cyclists warm-up before events on a stationary trainer. A good warm-up should not only spin the legs but include some intensity. You might wonder why it is necessary to suffer like that before an actual race? In this article i'll try to answer when and how a proper warm-up should be executed. But first let's consider why someone would bother doing a warm-up.
A couple of interesting things happening during a warm-up. First of all, the body temperature rises and the blood flow speeds up. With a slightly higher body temperature oxygen can be better attached and released to the oxygen transport molecules in your blood called hemoglobin. So, by warming-up more oxygen can reach the muscles. Also, with a higher body temperature the range of motion of your joints increases. A warmed-up body is just slightly more flexible and less stiff.
Another factor that helps to perform better after a warm-up is the fact that when you start exercising at a higher intensity the supply of energy switches from burning fat to mostly burning carbs. This process implies a rise of the lactate level and is partly anaerobic. This results is a short oxygen debt until a new steady state is reached. Sometimes referred to as lactate buffering, you do not want this oxygen debt to occur in the first minutes of your time trial or race. You might have experienced this with a hard start without a warm-up. Therefore, facilitating this switch with a gradual warm-up allows the rider to put the hammer down right from the start.
Also, the neuromuscular activation of the muscles helps to perform better after a warm-up. This process is called the post-activation potentiation (PAP). It basically means that short bouts of intense physical activity cause a biomechanical change within the muscle cells, which enhances the force of the muscles. This effect lasts for only about 5–10 minutes.
Lastly, one key factor on performance is the effect of getting ‘in the zone’. A warm-up can contribute to getting you in the right mindset and the right amount of stimulation to perform at your best. That’s why you see most pro-cyclists with big shades, caps and headphones completely closed off from their surroundings doing their warm-up.
So, if we take the above into account, we can already answer the ‘when’ question. Because some effects are only short-lived, like the neuromuscular effect of the PAP, a warm-up should be done at the very last moment before your start. Ideally, a warm-up is completed 5 minutes before the start. However, these 5 minutes are often the most stressful minutes and does not leave much time for a call of nature or any last minute equipment checks. So, 10 minutes is often a better trade-off and more realistic.
Now we have seen the effects of a warm-up, it is also quite easy to see when a warm-up is beneficial. It makes sense that this is not only the case with time trials but with every event that demands a hard start for example criteriums, cyclo cross. One could even argue why not to do a warm-up at every event. It doesn’t hurt to try, right? Well, the thing is that a warmed-up muscle performs better, but it also fatigues. So, doing a warm-up for too long or making it too intense might be counterproductive. You also have a limited carbohydrate storage in your body for about 1–1.5 hours at FTP intensity. Emptying this storage in a warm-up for an event that takes longer than an hour could also affect your performance.
So what does a good warm-up look like? Well, it is quite individual and should be handled like that, but I suggest to my clients that are racing up to 90 minutes that they should hit all the intensity zones briefly and make it not too long-typically 20 minutes. The following protocol is used by world class riders for short explosive races, use it as a reference point and adapt it to suit your own needs.
Finally, although you do want the muscle temperature to rise slightly, you do not want to overcook yourself on a trainer. So, especially during hot days, try to use a fan, a cool vest and/or ice-drinks or shorten your warm-up. Good luck warming-up those muscles and remember to keep the core body temperature cool!
• 5 minutes easy 60–70 % FTP • 8 minutes gradual incline of every minute 5%. So, 75, 80, 85, 90, 95, 100, 105, 110% • 2 minutes easy 60–65% FTP • 3 7-second sprints with 53 seconds of rest at 70% FTP in between • 2 minutes easy 60–70% FTP
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