Light spin, race-pace sprints, or cold turkey straight to the line? Everyone has a different take on the best pre-race warm-up. Our goal is to better understand the performance implications and physiological mechanisms of a quality warm-up. We’ll start with performance.
1: Performance Improvement
Research suggests that a quality warm-up can improve both time trial and sprint cycling performance [1-5]. What constitutes a quality warm-up? How hard should you ride, how long, and how soon before your start?
Before we define “quality”, we need a basic understanding of one of the primary performance drivers of the warm-up. It’s called the “priming” effect.
2: The “Priming” Effect
The warm-up activates a number of mechanisms theorized to improve performance . This article will focus on the mechanism that improves VO2 kinetics.
VO2 kinetics describe the rate at which oxygen consumption rises after the start of exercise . During the first few minutes of exercise there is a lag, or “O2 deficit”, during which the anaerobic energy systems provide the primary currency for exercise until a steady state of oxygen consumption can be reached . This lag can be reduced by “priming” the system with a quality warm-up .
In general, the quicker you can more fully utilize your aerobic energy system, the more anaerobic energy stores you can preserve.
Think of slamming the accelerator in your Prius and more quickly transitioning from primarily gas (anaerobic) to primarily battery (aerobic) power. Prime the pump by warming-up, speed up your VO2 kinetics at the onset of exercise, and spare your anaerobic turbo for a bridge attempt or final dash to the line.
3: Balancing Act
In a perfect world, a warm-up accomplishes these 2 objectives:
1. Increases muscle temperature  without increasing core temperature too much .
2. Improves VO2 kinetics  without causing too much fatigue .
You can start to see the warm-up as a balancing act between opposing forces. In a practical sense what does that look like on the bike?
4: The “Quality” Warm-up
In a 2009 study, researchers set out to better understand the optimal balance of intensity and recovery that elicited the “priming” effect while improving subsequent exercise performance .
In simple terms, a warm-up that included a 6-minute bout of “severe-intensity exercise” (RPE 7-8) followed by a 20 minute recovery period resulted in the greatest performance improvement. If you’re looking for the definition of a “quality” warm-up, this study is a great place to start.
5: In Practice
If I’m designing a warm-up using RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) based around the findings in this study, this is what it might look like:
1. 5m @RPE 1
2. 5m @RPE 4
3. 6m @RPE 7-8 | Complete step 3, 20m before start time
4. 4m @RPE 1 | Warm-up complete
5. 16m @Final prep, get to start line
Research points toward a warm-up making you faster on the bike provided you follow several rules:
1. Insert an intense 6 minute effort (RPE 7-8) into your warm-up .
2. Allow approximately 20 minutes of recovery before the start of your race .
3. If it’s hot, prioritize staying cool over a high-intensity warm up .
4. If it’s cold, experiment with bringing your warm-up closer to your start time to minimize a drop in muscle temperature .
5. Avoid sprints in your warm-up; they seem to do more harm than good .
6. Conduct your own research. Experiment with different warm-up protocols and observe their impact on your performance.
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1. Bailey, S.J., et al., Optimizing the “priming” effect: influence of prior exercise intensity and recovery duration on O2 uptake kinetics and severe-intensity exercise tolerance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2009. 107(6): p. 1743-1756.
2. Burnley, M., J.H. Doust, and A.M. Jones, Effects of prior warm-up regime on severe-intensity cycling performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2005. 37(5): p. 838-45.
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