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How to do a pre-race warmup

It's crucial for achieving peak performance.

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There is a bit of controversy around the pre-race warmup. Some coaches say that you should always use the same warmup protocol for every race. Other cycling coaches suggest modifying your warmup is better, depending on the race you’re warming up for.

However, there’s no doubt that a pre-race warmup is crucial for achieving peak performance.

In this article, we’re going to explain why pre-race warmups work and how to use them. At the end of this article, we’ll give you two pre-race warmups to try out before your next Zwift race, time trial, or criterium.

Related: Does strength training improve your cycling performance?

Why we do pre-race warmups

Warmups are the perfect way to prepare your body and mind for performance, and they permeate society in more ways than one. NFL players warm up before a football game, cyclists warm up before a time trial, and singers warm up before a concert.

The warmup primes your physiology by increasing blood flow to the working muscles and increasing your body temperature, oxygen delivery, and heart rate. You increase their aerobic capacity when you increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the working muscles. This is one of the driving processes behind endurance performance.

In other words, your body is more ready to use oxygen when you’re warmed up. Better oxygen delivery equals better endurance performance.

Without a warmup, your body relies more heavily on your anaerobic system, whose energy stores fade fast. That explains why, without a warmup, you may feel good for the first two minutes of your race, but then you’ll hit a wall.

Related: Training: Warming up for better results

Another reason for the warmup is to prime our muscles for maximum firing. Activated muscles are significantly more powerful (and fatigue-resistant) than unactivated muscles. That’s why sprinters do strides before the 100m dash, and swimmers do laps before their 200m relay.

If you go from sitting in the car to sprinting for the holeshot, your muscles are not only less powerful, but they are also less efficient and more prone to injury. A pre-race warmup is meant to activate and recruit the muscle fibers you’ll be using during the race. In this case, the warmup activates all the muscles that you use on the bike – quads, calves, hamstrings, lower back, etc.

On a quick side note, pre-workout warmups are unnecessary, in my opinion. Unless you are doing power testing (where peak performance is key), you don’t need to do a structured warmup for a workout. Workouts have built-in rest periods between intervals, and your goal is to complete all the working sets, not hit your peak numbers on the first repetition.

One of the most underrated aspects of a pre-race warmup is its psychological effects. The moment you clip in and begin pedaling, your mind begins to focus on the upcoming race. If you are driving, sitting, or talking with friends, your mind is bombarded with distractions and stress. Of course, there is a time and place for relaxed, social shenanigans, but it’s best to save that for way before or after your race.

Warming up on a turbo trainer is the most popular warmup method in cycling because it is unaffected by the elements and free of distraction. You can set up your trainer just about anywhere, and a small tent (or an open trunk) can help you warm up in any type of weather.

Doing your warmup on a trainer means that you don’t have to worry about open roads, traffic lights, or flat tires right before your race. Your warmup is the perfect time to narrow your focus and think about your plan for the race. Perhaps my favorite element of the trainer warmup is the meditative state it puts me in. I sometimes listen to music to get pumped up, but more often, I focus on my pedalstroke and visualize the upcoming race.

How to do a pre-race warmup

There are different schools of thought on pre-race warmups, and their creeds go something like this.

The longer the race, the less of a warm-up you need. No one warms up for the Unbound Gravel 200 or the 7-hour Milano Sanremo.

The shorter the race, the longer your warmup should be. Cyclocrossers have super thorough warmups ranging from 30-45 minutes in length, including both threshold efforts and high-intensity sprints. Track sprinters have warmup protocols that are at least 10 times longer than their actual race.

Warmups are crucial in cold weather and become less important the hotter it gets. Cold weather tightens your muscles and decreases circulation as your body pulls blood flow in towards your internal organs. A pre-race warmup gets that warm blood going again, circulating it to your leg muscles before the race.

Related: How the pros prepare for a prologue at the Tour de Romandie

A pre-race warmup can do more harm than good in hot weather, especially in extreme temperatures. Elevated core temperature is one of the biggest limiters to endurance performance. So if you’re already hot, don’t make it worse by warming up on the trainer.

As a rule of thumb, skip the trainer warmup if the heat index is above 90°F (32°C). The exception is if you have access to a cool tent and a cold towel draped over the back of your neck. These pro-level accessories help maintain core body temperature whilst priming your leg muscles for the race.

With those considerations in mind, let’s put together a pre-race warmup that you can use for almost any race. Most bike races – criteriums, cyclocross, and gravel – start with a hard effort, followed by a slight lull in intensity, and finish with a progressively harder effort.

Each of these warmups takes 30 minutes, and you should always finish your warmup 15-20 minutes before the start of your race. That gives you enough time to wipe down, grab your helmet, tighten your shoes, use the bathroom, and grab the nutrition and hydration you need for the race.

The only difference between these two warmups is the high-intensity working set, or the second half of the warmup. For most events, prime your muscles with 30/30s and short spin-ups. But for longer and steadier efforts, ride a few minutes at your threshold power to fully activate your aerobic system.

Pre-race warmup for short races (criteriums, cyclocross, and Zwift races):

5min Zone 1 (55% FTP)
4min Zone 2
2min Low Zone 3
2min High Zone 3
1min Low Zone 4
1min at Threshold (100% FTP)
5min easy (55% FTP)
3min 30/30s (140% FTP / 55% FTP)
2min easy (55% FTP)
2min spin-ups (6sec at 200% FTP / 54sec at 55% FTP)
3min easy (55% FTP)

Pre-race Warmup for Long Races (Road Races, Gravel, and Time Trials):
5min Zone 1 (55% FTP)
4min Zone 2
2min Low Zone 3
2min High Zone 3
1min Low Zone 4
1min at Threshold (100% FTP)
5min easy (55% FTP)
3min at Threshold (100% FTP)
2min easy (55% FTP)
3min at Threshold (100% FTP)
3min easy (55% FTP)