A good warm-up is instrumental to any good performance, whether it’s a hard workout or a race. You can’t do your best unless you’re both mentally and physically prepared for the effort. In general, what follows is advice about how to approach any kind of hard workout or race, but of course there are a lot of different factors, so it’s impossible to address all potential contingencies at once, but I’ll try to address some of the main ones.
First off, one of the main features of a good warm-up, if not the key, is simply getting your body warm. As you get warmed up, your body increases and redirects bloodflow to the working muscles, allowing for more oxygen delivery, allowing for more metabolism to occur in those tissues, both causing the tissues to get warmer. Ultimately, this helps increase your potential for performance, because your enzymes for burning fuel operate best at higher temperatures. So, warmer muscles with more oxygen can burn more fuel more easily and efficiently. This is the main thing to think of when thinking about warming up.
Associated with the above happenings, as you exercise and get warmed up, your hormones and nervous system adjust to the new demands of what you’re doing and help your body rise to the occasion by becoming more hormonally prepared to burn a lot of fuel and by letting your nervous system get prepared for hard efforts. This is where hard efforts in a warm up come into play. Doing a few light sprints or some harder aerobic efforts can help your body get ready for longer or harder efforts than a simple aerobic warm up will prepare you for.
Any time you need to do hard efforts early in a race, you should include a bit of hard aerobic, anaerobic or power efforts in your warm up. Hard aerobic efforts will prepare your body for hard aerobic efforts. Anaerobic efforts will help prepare those energy pathways to be used to their fullest potential. Power efforts, like sprints and seated big-gear efforts will help your nervous system be more prepared for maximal muscle contractions needed in sprinting or other hard efforts. If you just ever just riden steady for 30m before doing some VO2 intervals, then you’ve probably felt that the first 1 or 2 efforts weren’t your best or didn’t feel as good as the 2nd or 3rd effort did, after you’d gotten more opened up. So, keep that in mind, and just do a bit of light work beforehand, and those efforts will feel better off the bat.
So what does that mean for workouts or races? How should I warm up for specific efforts?
For tempo and threshold workouts or road races that are not likely to start off too hard, 20-40m of steady aerobic riding should be adequate. Starting off slow for a few minutes, getting a feel for your legs, and slowly easing into a steady but conversational pace, you should be ready for some solid tempo riding or threshold efforts. Make sure you feel warm and loose, hopefully you’re breaking a decent sweat. If you’re doing some threshold efforts, continue riding and include a few minutes of light tempo to ease into the higher aerobic riding before really doing hard threshold efforts. Or, start your first threshold effort with a few minutes of tempo before slowly easing into the full threshold intensity.
If you’re doing VO2/aerobic capacity efforts, anaerobic capacity efforts or starting a time trial, crit or road race that will likely start off hard, then you’ll need to do the previous warm-up routine, but add some extra work. Do a few minutes of tempo and/or threshold riding, maybe do a couple of short 1-2m VO2 efforts, and maybe do a few short accelerations of 10-20s or so. Riding some easy, but slightly higher intensity efforts will help further the warm up and get you ready to do hard efforts more effectively.
What do I do personally?
For a tempo/threshold workout or road race:
20-40m of steady aerobic riding, maybe including a few minutes of light tempo
Basically, before high-aerobic work like threshold efforts or a road race with a modest start, I’ll mostly just try to get my aerobic engine well warmed up by getting warm, breaking a sweat, feeling my HR get elevated, and just make sure the I get a feel for being able to ride my threshold power comfortably.
For a time trial (usually on a trainer until the last 10-15m before the start):
15-20m steady riding
10-20m tempo riding
5-10m of threshold riding in 2-3m short efforts
2-3×30-60s high-VO2 efforts with 1-3m easy between
2-3 short accelerations on the road
For a time trial, I want to get my aerobic metabolism warmed and ready to go, just like a threshold workout, but I also want to make sure that I get my heart rate well elevated a few times before the start and my breathing highly elevated a few times, even if just briefly. I find that pushing your HR and breathing up towards their high-end a few times really helps being comfortable when you’re trying to sustain them at 90 or 95% of their max. For a long time trial, I think I usually can feel fine if I just do a heavy aerobic warm-up, keeping it at or below my threshold power the whole time, but especially for shorter <20m time-trials, I really feel that it’s key to get a few minutes of aerobic capacity efforts in and maybe a few accelerations on the road, to get my HR and breathing prepared for a maximal effort and my nervous system prepped for some hard contractions.
For a crit:
basically the same as a time trial, but probably with a few more sprints
Again, like a time trial, it’s just good to be ready to ride hard from the start, unless you know that it will be easy and comfortable to sit in for the first 10-15m of the race and use that as a part of your warm up. Otherwise, just doing a few extra short accelerations on the road helps get ready for all of the hard accelerations involved in crit racing.
If it’s warm, then you can usually warm up more quickly because your body will get physically warm quicker. If it’s cold, then it will take longer to warm up adequately, and sometimes a lot longer. Always be sure to dress accordingly. Dressing well is often an issue of comfort, but also of performance. If you overheat or if you can never fully warm up your legs, both can compromise performance.
if you’re on a trainer
Generally, because you don’t have the wind-cooling effects, and because you can pedal without stopping, warming up on a trainer usually takes less time than warming up on the road, unless it’s exceptionally warm. I usually prefer trainer warm-ups for races if it’s cold, and for time trials. Warming up on a trainer is nice because you have control over how much and how hard you ride without deferring to the pace of a riding partner or any road issues (hills, descents, intersections, etc.). For what it’s worth, I’ll usually spend around 30 minutes on a trainer, and 10-15 minutes on the road before a time trial.
if you consume caffeine
A lot of people find that when they have some caffeine, they warm up more quickly. Probably the main reasons for this are that caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and its effect on catecholamines in your body. Namely, your nervous system gets a bit amped up and your body will have more epinephrine/adrenaline, again, potentially helping you to be ready to exercise.
if you haven’t ridden
If you’ve taken a day or two off, then sometimes it takes longer to warm up. Just feel it out and see how your sensations develop.
if you have ridden
Usually, if you worked out a bit yesterday, then today you’ll probably warm up better, more easily. If you’re pretty fresh, but did just a bit of hard work the day before, you’ll probably be pretty ready to go. If you did a big ride or a hard workout the day before, you may have some extra stiffness or lethargy and take a bit longer to get going.
If I did an easy 2h ride with a few minutes of threshold or a short VO2 effort yesterday, then today I’ll probably warm up as quickly as I am able. If I did a hard, long ride yesterday, then today it might take me an hour or two to feel remotely normal and ready to ride hard.
Bottom line: warm-up well, never force a hard effort when you really aren’t ready.