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The Art of The Perfect Pre-Race Warm-Up

cycling warming up on trainer pre-race

So much attention is paid to proper training strategies and racing tactics, while pre-race warm ups are often taken for granted. It’s like good nutrition – it might not be the #1 factor in your race performance, but it sure helps!

Warm ups are confusing though. You want to be fully prepared for the race ahead, but you don’t want to be tired out or use too much energy before even lining up. It’s just as much an art as a science.

It’s worth serious consideration, though, because a solid warm up will prepare both your body and mind for what’s about to happen!

Continue reading to discover why – and how – you should warm up before your next race.

Why You Have To Warm Up

The main goal is obviously to prepare your body for the work ahead. You want to initiate a few physiological changes:

  • Increase your heart rate.
  • Get blood flowing to working muscles (i.e. your legs.)
  • Raise core temperature to the optimal range.

These are the same goals you’d have going into a training session, but before a race, you don’t have any leeway. You have to get it just right, at the right time.

Warm ups are also an opportunity to “get in the zone” mentally. This could include any number of the following:

  • Reviewing and rehearsing your race strategy.
  • Visualizing the race.
  • Listening to loud music and getting amped up.
  • Doing some relaxing and calming breathing exercises.

The mental game is different for everyone. While one person might be jamming to heavy metal, singing out loud, building the excitement, someone else might be sitting quietly, breathing steadily, blocking out the noises from the crowd. But no matter what camp you fall into, your warm up session is your chance to do your thing.

How to Warm Up

Here’s what you need to know.

Basic Principles of Warming Up

Some basic thinking that always applies:

The shorter the race, the longer the warm-up.

The longer the race, the more chance you have to warm up during the race. Shorter races require less energy expenditure, so you can warm up for a longer period without concern. Shorter races are likely to be more intense, too, so a longer warm up is generally warranted.

Make sure you hit race intensity during your warm-up.

A warm up is so much more than just 10-15 minutes of easy spinning. You need to prepare your body for all intensity levels, including race intensity.

See, the first time you hit that intensity, your body is shocked. It’s thinking, “hey now buddy, there’s no need for a fight or flight response in this friendly parking lot.” It wants to resist. But it will give in eventually.

The point is, if you’re doing a mountain bike race where there’s a sprint from the line to get the hole shot, you don’t want that to be your first sprint of the day!!

Races start at the start line.

Some races have relaxed starts, but that’s not common. Sprinting from the gun is more likely. It’s absolutely required in the aforementioned mountain bike race where getting into the singletrack first is huge (it can make or break your race right there.)

Road races often start fast, too. In shorter races, such as criteriums and CX, it’s intense right from the gun, and stays that way the whole time. In a time trial, you have to hit threshold pace ASAP.

Even at a small, local road race, even when they attempt a neutral start, it will be as fast as the pace car. Lots of showoffs will push the pace, which in turn requires the serious racers to push the pace so they can stay ahead of these people who fizzle out quickly.

Where to warm up

When warming up, you want to set up as close to the start line as possible. Ideally within hearing distance of any important pre-race announcements. In the most comfortable area you can find.

It just makes sense. You’ll keep abreast of everything that’s happening, and there’s no fear of not making it back to the start line on time.

But that only works if you have a stationary trainer with you.

If you are warming up under real conditions (which I prefer,) there are a few more concerns. First, you need to warm up in a safe location. Try to use low-traffic roads or easy trails. Main roads and dark alleys are both bad ideas.

You must also allow yourself enough time to get to start line! That’s very important! If you’re going to be riding away from the start line, make sure you have enough time to get back there and get lined up in a good starting position.

Allot for the distance to travel, as well as time and speed (like if your return trip includes more uphill.) And factor in a bathroom break, lines at the port-a-john, grabbing the extra gel you left in your car, etc..

If you’ve never been to a particular venue, check it out on Google Earth to see what options you might have for a warm up area.

Adapting to different conditions

Each race, each year, is different. Maybe there is road work, maybe they wanted to change the course, maybe the weather has been unpredictable. Every little thing plays a role. How you feel that day matters.

Here are some conditions that might affect your warm up – and what to do about them.

Hot and sunny

Hot and sunny days can come from nowhere. Just because it’s been in the 40s lately doesn’t mean it won’t hit 80 on race day next week. Or maybe there’s a heat wave and it’s 98 instead of 80.

The major concern on these days is that you don’t want your core temp to get too high. Remember, the point of a warm up is get your core temp in the optimal range. If it’s super hot, your core temp is likely in that range already! So you need to ‘warm up’ without heating up.

You’ll spend less time warming up, and you’ll drink more. Try to stay in the shade. Squirt ice water on the back of your neck, too. If you have someone who will hold a fan on you, even better!

Cold

Be sure to pack a warm up outfit for cold weather. Otherwise, good luck getting your core temp up into optimal range.

If it’s really cold, some cyclo-cross racers sit in a heated car as long as possible before jetting to the start line.

It’s a trade-off. Figure out what works best for you.

Rain

If it’s raining really bad, you don’t want to get wet and cold too early. Along with a warm outfit, see if there’s some shelter. The ideal set up would be to be on a trainer, under one of those EZ-Up tents.

Road closures / Trails are muddy

What happens if your normal warm up roads are closed? Or the hardpack trails have turned to sloppy mud? Do you have a backup warm up location?

Do you risk the higher traffic roads? Do you get muddy? Or did you pack a stationary trainer, just in case?

Example Pre-Race Warm Up Routine

Here’s an example routine that’s designed for warming up for a short road race or 40k Time Trial, but could be adapted for use in many situations.

It’s 40-50 minutes long and can be done on the road or on a trainer.

Time Description / Intensity Level
20:00 Easy spinning at your endurance pace.
10:00 Tempo
2:00 Recovery
5:00 at Lactate Threshold (don’t exceed it.)
2:00 Recovery
3:00 Above LT. VO2max interval.
2:00 Recovery
0:30 Anaerobic Capacity opener
1:00 Recovery
0:30 Anaerobic Capacity opener
2:00 Recovery

Work with your coach to dial in the intensity levels and duration for your specific race situation!

 

Now you know why and how to warm up, and to be prepared for anything! Have fun out there!

P.S. Arrive to the race venue early enough that you have plenty of time to warm up!

 

Photo credit: Onno Kluyt

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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