Reduce Injury Risk
Popular wisdom states that warming up is mandatory for reducing the 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 favoring 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 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.