Skipping your warm-up may save time, but your performance will suffer

A warm-up before a training session or race is essential for preparing your body for exercise. Not only will it help you to perform better, but it will also protect your body from injury.

What a warm-up does

A racing driver wouldn’t hit the accelerator without giving the engine time to warm up, and it’s the same when you’re on your bike. When you are cycling, your body shifts up a gear from its resting state. If you start to pedal hard from a cold start you will soon find yourself gasping for air and with an uncomfortable burn in your legs.

A good warm-up switches on your energy production system and gets it running smoothly. To supply the energy for cycling your body starts a process called glycolysis, breaking down stored fuel in your muscles. To do this your body requires more oxygen, so your breathing and heart rate increase to make sure oxygenated blood reaches your muscles. To start exercising hard without a gradual warm-up is asking your body to play catch up on these processes, which it can’t do – instead you end up in ‘oxygen debt’ as your energy system needs more oxygen than your body is able to supply.

As well as priming your energy system, warming-up increases blood flow and your body temperature rises slightly. This increases the range of motion in your joints, your muscles feel less stiff and your pedal stroke becomes more fluid. The communication between your brain, nervous system and muscles also becomes activated. If you are warming-up for a hard training session with high intensity intervals or a race, this neuromuscular activation is critical to allow your muscles to respond rapidly when you want to sprint or accelerate.

How to warm-up for cycling

Having a regular warm-up that you do before every training session and race can help you to feel more relaxed and in control. By keeping it the same, you don’t have to think about what the warm-up needs to be, and instead you are able to focus on the sensations in your body. This allows you to tune into your muscles and you’ll notice quickly if you are feeling fatigued, if you have any niggling pain or if you are feeling good and ready to ride hard.

A rule of thumb is that the shorter and more intense the event, the longer the warm-up needs to be. Track sprinters will warm-up for as much as an hour before they race. For longer events or a training session of an hour or more, twenty minutes is plenty. Even if you are doing a long ride or an event such as a sportive, a warm-up is still beneficial, as it’s a chance to check out that your body and your bike are both in good working order and it gives you time to focus yourself on the task ahead.  If there is a hill close to the start or you go off fast with a group of riders, a good warm-up will make sure you are fully prepared.

Quick warm-up for cyclists

British Cycling has designed a 20-minute warm-up that is used by athletes at all levels, from sportive riders to Olympians. It is best done on a static trainer such as a Wattbike, turbo or rollers, but it can be done on the road.

Start in an easy to moderate gear, and after 11 minutes you should be sweating lightly. The fast pedalling rev-outs are designed to engage your neuromuscular system so your legs are ready for a rapid response if you need to accelerate or sprint.