Done before the gun: Is your warm-up making you slower?
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” Abraham Lincoln once said.
Many cyclists embody that axiom and believe that success correlates directly with volume of preparation. But while success often comes to those that train the hardest, the axe of preparation cuts both ways. Pushing too hard can leave you fatigued rather than fit.
Athletes with ritualistic pre-race routines can torpedo their race before it starts due to over-preparation.
Survey the parking lot before a time trial, road, or cyclocross race, and you’ll likely see many cyclists getting slower before they start. The culprit? Two pre-race practices have been linked to short-term decreases in cycling performance when used incorrectly.
Seasoned cyclists know the dangers of over-preparation in terms of training with too little recovery but are less-versed on the perils of overdoing it in the minutes leading up to a race.
The length and intensity of a traditional warm-up has long been thought to give competitive cyclists an edge by promoting a process called post-activation potentiation (PAP). To elicit PAP, short bouts of strenuous physical activity activate a biochemical change in working muscles that can enhance muscular performance. This PAP activation lasts from five to 10 minutes after the warm-up period. However what isn’t so handy, as cycling researchers have discovered, is when the PAP benefit is negated by the muscular fatigue of an excessive warm-up.
In research presented in the Journal of Applied Physiology, scientists compared a traditional 50-minute warm-up with high-intensity intervals to a 15-minute warm-up with moderate-intensity intervals in 10 highly trained track cyclists.
The researchers found that the shorter warm-up group experienced less muscle fatigue and produced higher peak power outputs in an ensuing test. They hypothesized that, while both warm-ups elicited PAP, the longer warm-up generated enough fatigue to counteract positive effect of PAP. In other words, the cyclists that warmed up for just 15-minutes had fresher legs than those that used a traditional, 50-minute warm-up.
Additionally, in a recent study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, researchers warned that, “Warm-up exercise including race-pace and sprint intervals combined with short recovery can reduce subsequent performance in a four-minute maximal test in highly trained cyclists.” The cyclists in the study group that included high-intensity warm-up intervals exhibited less peak power in a subsequent maximal exercise test.
The study’s authors recommended that an ideal warm-up should be shortened or performed at reduced intensity.
How long did that energy sapping fatigue last? The reduced power output elicited by the high-intensity warm-up persisted beyond 30 minutes in the studied cyclists, indicating that performance would be diminished well into most races.
The bottom line is that after any warm-up exercise, muscular performance can be decreased by fatigue or enhanced by the beneficial effects of PAP, and efforts beyond a moderate level of intensity or duration run the risk of creating fatigue.
And there’s more sobering news about another pre-race activity — static stretching, a common ritual for many cyclists, has been linked to decreases in cycling performance when used immediately before exercise.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Stretch and Conditioning Research found a significant decrease in cycling economy when highly trained cyclists used static stretching before moderate-intensity cycling. Endurance or cycling economy is similar to fuel economy in a car; an economical car uses less fuel at a specific speed, and similarly, a more economical cyclist uses less energy to maintain a given intensity or speed. Surprisingly, cyclists that stretched before riding needed more oxygen and fuel to exercise at the same pace. While the stifling effects of the static stretching were short-lived, they were significant enough for researchers to recommend against stretching before cycling.
Static stretching also puts a damper on more explosive efforts. Using the Wingate Test, a standardized measure of anaerobic power, Spanish scientists studied the effects of different type of stretching on cycling performance and found that both the time to reach peak power and average power were negatively affected in the groups that stretched immediately before the test. The research, presented in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, concluded that, “The type of stretching, or no stretching, should be considered by those who seek higher performance and practice sports that use maximal anaerobic power.”
So what’s left? Getting a jump on the Porta-A-Potty line? Of course, this is not to suggest that warming up or stretching cannot be useful tools for competitive and recreational cyclists. Performed correctly, a warm-up can increase performance by as much as five percent.
These and other studies show that moderate-intensity efforts are sufficient to improve performance and carry less risk of muscular fatigue. A properly executed warm-up should not exceed 15-20 minutes and should only include several brief moderate-intensity efforts. An intensity of 60 percent to 70 percent of maximal heart rate is sufficient, with one or two 30-second, higher-intensity accelerations.
For those that still want to stretch before a race, dynamic stretching, or active movement of the muscles involved in cycling, does not elicit the same performance penalties. Jumping jacks, hip circles, and high leg kicks, for instance, can prepare muscles for the stresses of cycling better than static stretching.
Since individual responses to warming up need to be taken into account, the optimal pre-race strategy for competitive cyclists will vary. However, based on this research, you may be better off worrying about chopping down that tree, rather than spending all morning honing your axe.