In 2011, I had two teammates — Chad Haga and Scott Tietzel — who could both claim to be among America’s best time trialists. Their warm-up routines couldn’t have been more different. Tietzel spent an hour and a half doing a complex series of specialized efforts punctuated with some stretching. It was individualized, detailed, and scientific. Haga’s routine didn’t involve much more than spinning easy for 15 minutes in the parking lot while chatting with his buddies. At the Mount Hood Cycling Classic prologue that year, they took first and second places.
I tell this story as an example of how many athletes’ warm-up habits are highly personal. But there’s a more important question: Was one of these cyclists underperforming because of a poor warm-up? A flurry of new research suggests the answer is yes — it just may not be the one you think.
Until recently, advice on how to warm up has come about through trial and error, or from long-held, dogmatic beliefs. In the past few years, however, new research has begun to challenge those notions. One study, published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance in 2015, compared the complex warm-up routine of elite Danish athletes to a 15-minute moderate spin. It found that the elite routine reduced performance in a four-minute time trial. Likewise, a 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology entitled “Less is More” compared a 45-minute traditional track warm-up (riders ramped up to 95 percent of max heart rate followed by four sprints) to a 15-minute warm-up in which riders ramped up to only 70 percent and did one sprint. Less was better.
“I hope that sprint cyclists are warming up less now,” says study author Brian MacIntosh, Ph.D., a kinesiologist at the University of Calgary.
According to MacIntosh, while we know warm-ups help, researchers still are not certain what mechanisms are involved. However, a few have been identified that are collectively called “priming.” The first involves raising core and muscle temperature. A single-degree increase can improve peak power and performance two to five percent.
Other priming effects include an improved VO2 response at the start of the race and something called post-activation potentiation, or PAP. The idea is that performing a series of intense, voluntary contractions improves the muscle’s ability to contract. Many track cyclists now incorporate short sprints into their warm-up routines.
These priming effects are short-lived. In most studies, the enhanced VO2 response only lasted a few minutes longer than it did in athletes who didn’t warm up at all. Furthermore, PAP and higher muscle temperature appear to primarily aid ATP turnover, maximal contraction force, and anaerobic glycolysis. That’s a mouthful for saying that these routines improve short, intense efforts.
For long events like road races, most of the benefits of a warm-up will dissipate before a pedal is ever turned. And unless it’s cold outside, increasing body temperature before an endurance event makes no sense whatsoever, according to MacIntosh. Over time, a heightened core temperature is a primary cause of fatigue.
Therein lies the trick. The optimal warm-up balances priming with fatigue.
A poor warm-up can raise lactate levels, lower blood pH, and reduce anaerobic energy stores such as glycogen. As the research indicates, it takes surprisingly little to end up on the wrong side of the balance. For example, in MacIntosh’s study, fatigue led to reduced torque, which more than offset the gains from PAP, raising doubts about the benefits of a PAP-focused warm-up.
Likewise, a 2015 study led by Dr. Jordan McIntyre at the Auckland University of Technology Performance Institute found no benefits from VO2 priming in a three-kilometer time trial. In fact, the group with the hardest warm-up (five, 10-second near maximal sprints) had the best VO2 response—but the worst performance.
Recovery time between the warm-up and event can favorably shift the priming/fatigue balance. However, core temperature and VO2 priming decline rapidly within 10 minutes, while MacIntosh found that reduced torque from too much fatigue can last 30 minutes. It’s a hard balance to strike.
Almost all the research is pointing in one direction: A longer and harder warm-up is not better for cyclists. What is surprising is how little may be enough. In fact, Haga may be on to something. The Danish study saw the greatest performances and lowest markers of fatigue in cyclists who rode easy for 15 minutes.
Less is more: What’s right for you?
Research indicates there is large variability between appropriate warm-up routines. Here’s how to find yours.
Start with something
Former professional Carmen Small, the 2016 U.S. national time trial champion, wouldn’t recommend her warm-up routine to anyone, since it’s tailored to her. But you have to start some- where. Based on the current research, around 15 minutes may be optimal. For events that start hard, such as track races or short time trials, MacIntosh recommends starting with aerobic work, then progressing to vigorous (threshold or just above threshold) intensity, finishing with one or two 3- to 5-second sprints.
“It took me over 10 years to dial in something that I know works for me,” Small says. She recommends experimenting with intensity, volume, and recovery periods before training races. Ask yourself how you felt. If you make a change and feel great, try it again.
Do less when racing longer
“In my opinion, the benefits of a warm-up are diminished when the event is longer,” says MacIntosh. A few minutes spinning in a parking lot may be enough.
Have a recovery period
MacIntosh found huge differences in how the athletes in his study recovered from the warm-up. You’ll need to experiment. The evidence does suggest one thing: You’ll need at least six minutes.
Adjust to the situation
Different races require different warm-ups. Is it likely to start slow or have an early selection? Generally, if you are expecting to go hard in the first 15 minutes, such as in a crit, time trial, or on the track, a warm-up is warranted. If saving energy reserves is critical, or the race starts slowly, opt for rest or an easy spin.
Adjust to the weather
Warming up on a hot day can accelerate dehydration and fatigue. Spinning easy, followed by sitting in the shade with an ice sock on your back, may be best. On a cold day, keeping core and muscle temperature high is critical. Muscle relaxation rates are slower when it’s cold; this can lead to injury.
Adjust to how you feel
If you feel sluggish or tired, Small recommends a shorter warm-up, followed by two 10- to 30-second efforts to get the pop back in your legs. When Small is feeling great, she just saves her energy for the race.