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Cycling fitness: Do I really need to warm up?

Michael Donlevy
2 Mar 2017

Is it that important to prepare the body, or should you actually just get on your bike and ride?

When time is short, you want to spend as much of it as possible enjoying a ride or building your fitness.

That can make it tempting to sacrifice the boring bits of your time in the saddle that don’t appear to have any tangible benefit – the warm-up, for example. But is this an area in which you should be scrimping?

‘It’s an area of contention,’ says sports scientist Greg Whyte, who has worked as director of research at the British Olympic Association. ‘But there’s no doubt that warming up is crucial for certain sessions and is built in naturally to less crucial sessions.

‘If you’re doing a high-intensity interval session it’s critical to prepare your body – and mind – for the session ahead. If you’re doing a long ride it’s slightly less important, but you tend to build it into the ride anyway.

‘You don’t set off at the pace you’re looking to maintain for the duration of the ride, so you may not even be aware that you’re warming up. It’s lineally related to the intensity of the session.’

We could just stop there, but we at Cyclist like a good debate and British Cycling coach Will Newton disagrees with Whyte’s second point.

‘In reality, most people who plan a steady ride don’t start off steady – they start too hard,’ he says. ‘Especially if you set off into a headwind or up a hill, those nice and easy first 20 minutes aren’t nice and easy.

‘I also think it’s age and experience-related. If you’re in your early twenties you probably don’t need to warm up. As you get older it becomes more important, especially for your joints.’

Harder the ride = longer warm-up

A hard session requires more than a bit of light pedalling, so personal trainer and cycling coach Paul Butler has some rules: ‘The harder the ride, the longer the warm-up.

‘A session that involves one-minute max efforts requires you to warm up much harder and for longer than for a 100-mile endurance ride. Aim for at least 20 minutes, and up to 40 minutes for a short, hard session.

‘Your warm-up should include a stress on the body similar to your planned ride,’ he adds.

‘So if you’re warming up for a 25-mile TT make sure you reach your functional threshold intensity, heart rate and power output for at least a few minutes.

‘If you’re about to take part in a race with lots of tight corners, perform some out-of-the-saddle sprints to simulate coming out of those corners.’

Timing is also crucial. Butler recommends that if you’re racing, you should finish no longer than an hour before your event. 

‘Stay warm, or if it’s a very hot day find some shade so you don’t overheat. Don’t panic about losing the benefits of the warm-up. As long as you stay warm, trust in your process.’

The science

The next question is what that process is actually for. ‘Warming up is important for multiple reasons,’ says Whyte.

The first is heat dissipation. When we exercise the body produces heat, and three-quarters of that heat is lost through dissipation. Yet muscles operate at a temperature that’s higher than their resting temperature.

‘The enzymes linked to energy production and the neural signalling to the muscles that fires them up are also heat-dependent. It’s like getting into a car – you wouldn’t turn the engine on and rev it to 8,000rpm.’

‘We all know that stiff feeling at the start of a ride when the legs just don’t seem to work,’ says Ian Holmes, sports therapist and soigneur for Madison Genesis.

‘The muscle fibres need to be activated, which means increasing bloodflow and establishing range of motion. These muscles include those associated with respiration – the diaphragm and intercostals – that assist with breathing and supplying oxygen to the muscles.

‘More oxygen to the muscles equals better performance.’

‘It’s also important for getting switched on psychologically, especially if you’re in a race and it goes off hard,’ says Newton. ‘If you haven’t warmed up you may never recover from the fact that your heart rate has gone sky high from the start.’

The benefits are as clear as the science. You’ll perform better physically and mentally, and you’re less likely to get injured.

‘Studies with regard to injury prevention are tricky because testing muscles to failure is painful, but muscle tears are more likely when applying load to cold muscle fibres,’ says Holmes.

Off the bike

Warming up should prepare the muscles you’re about to use so it makes sense to do it on the bike – ideally on rollers if you’re about to race – but there’s also a case to be made for warming up off the bike in certain circumstances, so long as this complements rather than replaces your effort on the bike.

‘It can be helpful if you have a specific mobility issue,’ says Newton. ‘People with hamstring issues may have specific exercises to convince the nervous system to reach the end range of muscle mobility. Otherwise stick to rollers. It’s not like triathlon, where you have to warm up on dry land for the swim.’

‘A functional warm-up should encompass all major muscle groups and kick-start the cardiovascular system,’ says Holmes. ‘Shoulders, neck and back muscles will all benefit and this may avoid pain and discomfort later on.’

‘Stretching is probably the area of greatest contention,’ says Whyte. ‘Should you stretch before the warm-up, after the warm-up or not at all?

‘To some extent stretching also has a relationship with intensity – you may require less for a long ride than for a high-intensity session – but it does depend on the individual. Some people do need to, others don’t.’ Which probably explains why it’s such an area of contention.

One other thing to consider is your diet, says Newton. ‘Warming up is even more important if you have a low-carb diet.

‘If you start off hard your body basically goes into fight or flight mode, in which the first available fuel is carbs. If done right, a warm-up switches on your body’s tendency to burn fat rather than carbohydrate.’

Just like a pro

That brings us to the pros, who often train in a slightly fasted state and would never skip a warm-up. So do they have some clever tricks up their sleeves?

‘No,’ says Whyte. ‘It’s exactly the same at pro level, and it’s exactly what I do with the Olympic medallists. It makes me laugh that club riders think they’re not the same as the pros, but whether you’re putting out 600 watts or 200 watts you’re still riding a bike.’

‘You can find the Team GB warm-up on the British Cycling website,’ Newton adds. ‘Most pros will have their own version, but the key is that you want your heart rate to rise quickly, a few times over, so you don’t get that shock response.

Just remember that it’s still going to be hard. When a crit race goes off it’s still going to hurt.’

Oh, and as Butler says, ‘No warm-up will save you if you haven’t done the training.’ Sorry.

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