Everyone knows warming up is essential; or is it?
Most cyclists feel a responsibility to warm-up but many are uncertain of how to do it.
In this guide I’ll lay out the evidence-based foundation of the warm-up, while offering specific suggestions for how you might tailor a warm-up to the specific demands of your event. Let’s jump in.
If you’ve been told to warm-up before a cycling event, it’s probably been for one of the reasons below.
Reduce Injury Risk
Popular wisdom states that warming up is mandatory for reducing risk of injury, but the available evidence isn’t so conclusive .
A 2006 review article examining whether the warm-up reduced injury risk looked at five randomized and controlled studies.
Three studies offered evidence that warming-up may reduce injury risk while two did not. What should you take from the conflicting findings of this review article? Maybe not much.
The three studies in favor of warming up used an active warm-up in which body/muscle temperature was elevated.
The two studies not showing a reduced injury risk used a passive warm-up of stretching only.
To make a long story short, you’ll likely reduce your injury risk if you actively warm-up, but not if you’re simply stretching.
Elevate Muscle Temperature
To get the minimum benefit of a warm-up and reduce our risk for injury, we need to elevate our muscle temperature.
This increase in muscle temperature may also help to improve our cycling performance .
In short, a warmer muscle is more powerful and efficient than a cooler muscle, provided we’re not warming up too much. We’ll get to this point later, but for now, warming up seems important in providing the best state to begin any type of cycling event, especially those that begin with intense effort.
Prime the “Aerobic Pump”
For an endurance sport like cycling, it’s generally an advantage for your oxidative (aerobic) energy system to carry as much of the workload of pedaling as possible.
In simple terms, our aerobic energy system is less fatigable than our “anaerobic” energy systems.
The superior endurance capacity of the aerobic energy system is why warming up can be especially effective for events that begin with a high energy demand from the start (like a time trial).
In effect, a well-executed warm-up can “prime” your aerobic energy system to supply a greater proportion of energy to power the pedals, the moment you begin a hard effort.
A “primed” aerobic system helps you produce power “aerobically” sooner in your effort, conserving more limited “anaerobic” energy reserves for later in your effort .
Post-activation potentiation or “PAP” is the phenomena by which a recent “history” of muscle contraction may enhance future performance .
In a practical sense, research has shown that doing a heavy strength exercise like a leg press approximately 10 minutes before starting, may enhance performance on a 20k time trial .
The PAP phenomena is well established in strength and power sport, but its impact on an endurance sport like cycling is less well known and wide open for further discovery .
Prepare Your Mind
Racing a bicycle can be incredibly stressful, which is why one benefit of warming up is to create the mental space to focus and review your strategy heading into any type of cycling event.
Research suggests that “self-directed cognitive strategies” like psyching yourself up before a bench press can improve your force production .
Comparing “psych-up” strategies for a bench press to the world of cycling may not offer the most applicable comparison, but it seems reasonable that developing a routine during your warm-up to help focus and channel your energy before an event may give you the best shot at achieving a peak performance.
Another way to harness free motivation prior to an event is to listen to music. In a recent study, researchers found that rowers who listened to their own preferred music while warming up improved their power output and finishing time compared to those who listened to someone else’s music, or no music at all .
The takeaway? The warm-up period offers an opportunity to improve subsequent performance via physical and psychological avenues.
Before we jump into a list of practical recommendations for warming up, let’s loop back to determine how ambient temperature can play a role in your warm-up strategy.
Pay Attention to Temperature
While elevating muscle temp can lead to improved performance, an increase in core temperature can degrade performance .
That’s why it makes sense to modify your warm-up by cutting back on how hard and how long your warm-up is whenever it’s especially hot out .
In the same way high temperatures should have you avoiding big increases in core temperature, cold temperatures should have you preserving increased muscle temperature as close to your start time as possible .
Here’s how you might modify your warm-up to go either way.
If it’s hot
- Keep your warm-up shorter, or cut it all together
- Reduce the intensity of your warm-up to minimize rise in core temp
- Warm-up in the shade, have extra water to pour/spray
- After warming up, sit in air-conditioned car avoiding direct sun
If it’s cold
- Bring the end of your warm-up closer to the start of your event
- Plan out a layering strategy that allows you to retain as much heat for as long as possible before the start of your event
- Increase the intensity of your warm-up
- Drink warm liquids
- After your warm-up, put on sweatpants to keep legs warm
Stop it, the warm-up doesn’t matter
Before we get carried away with the magical powers of the warm-up, it’s important to call out recent research suggesting that the warm-up might not actually matter after all.
A recent study compared three different warm-up conditions before a 20k time trial. The first condition followed a traditional warm-up with 10m of riding at a moderate intensity. The second condition sought to activate PAP with some moderate riding followed by three 10s all-out sprints. The third condition was no warm-up at all.
Researchers found that both the standard and PAP warmup improved jumping ability when compared to the “no warm-up” condition but not subsequent cycling performance .
Should this research have you ditching your warm-up routine all-together?
Under some conditions (like when it’s hot) ditching your warm-up might make sense, but for most other cycling contexts, I think dialing in a warm-up routine still makes the most sense and that’s where we’re headed next.
Customizing Your Warm-up
In our final section we’ll examine how you might combine the best warm-up recommendations from science into simple guidelines for most cycling events you might encounter.
We’ll start with the time trial.
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