If you have ever visited the starting area of a time trial, you might have been overwhelmed by the vast number of stationary trainers. Not only at a professional bike race but also on a lower level you see almost everyone riding their bike without moving an inch. Although a warm-up has been custom for quite a while at (team) time trials, you see more and more cyclists warm-up before other events as well. Not only do they seem to spin their legs but most of them are really working themselves into a sweat. It doesn’t make any sense at first sight why it is necessary to suffer like that before an actual race, or does it? In this article we will try to answer when and how a proper warm-up should be executed. But before we can answer these questions, we should take a look at why someone would bother doing a warm-up.
There are 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.
Fat and carbs
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 means there is a short oxygen debt until a new steady state is reached. 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, making this switch already with a gradual warm-up makes it easier 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.
Last, but definitely not least, 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 done 5 minutes before the start. However, these 5 minutes are often the most stressful minutes in an entire grand tour. So, to ease it up a bit 10 minutes is often a better trade-off.
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. 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, taking all this together, what should be a proper warm-up? Well, first let me say this is quite individual and should be handled like that, but my educated opinion is that you should hit all the intensity zones briefly and make it not too long. To provide you with a framework that you could adapt to your own needs the workout below could be a good starting point.
One last thing to keep in mind. 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 body 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