What constitutes a proper warm-up for a race?

"What constitutes a proper warm-up for a race?  Would it vary depending on my level of racing, i.e. beginner vs. pro?  How would warming up for a short track race vs. cross country race vs. endurance race affect the warm-up?"

Warming up for a  race is one of the most neglected parts of our race preparation, yet a proper warm-up can have a dramatic effect on how you perform, especially in the first 15-20 minutes of the race.  A good warm-up will activate your muscles at various intensities without creating a lot of lactic acid.  An accumulation of lactic acid would inhibit muscle contraction causing you to start your race already tired.  Without a good warm-up your muscles will be tight and “asleep”.  The start of a race can be very intense and your HR can skyrocket within seconds.  If your legs aren’t ready for such a violent start, you’ll feel terrible and you won’t be able to ride as hard as you’re used to or want to.  You’ll most likely get dropped from the pack within the first 5-10 minutes.

Warm-ups vary depending on the length of the race.  In general, the shorter the race the longer the warm-up.  The longest and hardest warm-ups are done for prologues, track events (kilo, pursuit), MTB short tracks, and criteriums.  There is very little warm-up for the ultra-endurance events, 100 mile/100km marathons, and big multi-day stage races. 

When trying to decide what to do in your warm-up, ask yourself what kind of intensity you think you will be racing at for the first 10-20 minutes.  If the race starts slow with a more social atmosphere until an hour or two into the event, then a moderate warm-up with some endurance and a little tempo work will do you very well.  If you are getting ready for a short track or a 2hr cross country event, you know that you will be maxed out within 30 seconds of the gun going off.  Warming up for this kind of event should include a lot of lactate threshold and vo2 intensity. 

Age and experience on the bike are also things to consider when designing your warm-up.  A very young cyclist that has only a few years of racing in his legs might not do well with a long warm-up.  It might make him tired by the time he goes to the start line.  I would suggest a 30-40 minute warm-up at most.  For athletes that have raced for decades and have a high level of fitness, or may be racing at the pro/elite level, then a full one-hour warm-up works well for a short event, 45-50 minutes for a cross country race, and 20-30 for an ultra-endurance race.  And for athletes that are above 50 and consider themselves “Masters”, an even longer warm-up might be needed.  Older athletes tend to need a lot more time to get their legs going up to race pace. 

So just what should you do in your warm-up?  Up until 2005, the warm-up I used for all my cross country races was the following:  20min easy spin, 10 minutes at tempo, 5 minute easy spin, 4 minute lactate threshold, 4 minute easy spin, 3 minute vo2, 3 minute easy spin, 3 minute vo2, 3-4 minute easy spin and then off the bike and over to the start line.  If I raced the short track the next day I would do the same warm up except skip the 4 minute lactate threshold.

I changed my warm-up slightly when I came back and raced cyclocross in 2009 to a shorter, more efficient warm-up.  It consisted of: 20min easy spin, 2x5min tempo efforts with a 2min recovery followed by 2x2min vo2 efforts with a 3min recovery.  Then right to the start line. 

If you were warming up for an ultra-endurance event I would do the following:  20min easy spin followed by a 10min tempo effort.  That’s it.

There are a couple of other things you should know about warm-ups.  

1.   They are best done on a trainer.  You can eliminate the stress of trying to find a safe place warm-up, you don’t have to worry about flatting or having a mechanical while getting ready, and your food, drink, and clothing is right there next to the trainer.   

2.   Do everything in a nice high cadence around 100-110rpms.  A lower cadence will load up your legs and fatigue your muscles. 

3.   Be conservative with your heart rate and power.  If you are doing a 4 minute effort at your lactate threshold, ride at the low to middle end of the LT zone.  Don’t try and set a record for highest power and HR in your warm-up.

4.   It is easier on your legs if you do your efforts on a “bell curve”.  When we do intervals in training we usually start the effort at the desired power and try and maintain it for the entire effort.  When we finish the effort, especially a hard one, we are completely maxed out and we collapse on our handlebars.  A lot of times we completely stop pedaling.   When warming up for a race, slowly ramp up your effort so that at the half-way point of the interval you have reached your desired HR and power.  Hold that intensity for 15 seconds to a minute and then slowly back down.  This is much easier on your legs and won’t create a build-up of lactic acid.  For example, if my tempo zone is 155-165bpm, I will take 4 ½ minutes to hit my desired HR of 160bpm.  Then I will hold that HR for a minute before slowly decreasing my intensity so by the end of the 10 minute effort my HR is back down to 120-130.  If my LT zone is 169-175bpm, I will take 2 minutes to build up to 172, hold it for 15 seconds, and then back off until I reach a HR around 140. 

5.   If you are doing a multi-day event or back to back races, remember that when your body gets tired your HR will be lower than normal.  In this case I will do my warm-up using “perceived exertion” instead of heart rate.  For example; when warming up for the 5th day of a 7 day stage race, your HR might be 10 beats lower for the same tempo effort that you did on day one.  You might still be generating the same amount of power, but if you go strictly by HR, you will think that you’re not riding hard enough.  Mentally that can be very defeating and you will end up thinking you’re going to have a bad day.  Going by perceived exertion eliminates this.  I will cover up my HR monitor and do the warm-up strictly by feel.  If you are lucky enough to have a power meter, then this is something you don’t have to worry about.  Power is power no matter how tired or fresh you are.

6.   Always do your warm-up with an energy drink and food.  If you warm-up with only water and you don’t eat anything you will be quite depleted in carbohydrate reserves and most likely dehydrated before you start your race.  You’ve already dug yourself into a hole.

7.   Time your warm-up so that you finish with only 10 minutes to go before call-up.  A great warm-up won’t do you any good if you finish 30 minutes before your event and you stand around getting stiff and cold. 

8.    Eliminate distractions from family and friends.  Encourage those folks to chat with you after your race.  Your job isn’t to be social while warming up.  Stay focused and be a little selfish.  You’ll be glad you did when the gun goes off.

The best thing to do is practice your warm-up routine at training races and smaller local events that aren’t important.  Be familiar with your warm-up schedule, know your body and how long it takes for you to get completely ready physically and mentally, know what kinds of food and drink work best for you and how much, and know how much time you need to get off the trainer and head to the start line.  It is even important to know how many times you typically go to the bathroom before the start of a race.  Then when you go to the big events your warm-up will be stress-free and something you don’t really have to think about; you just do it.

Good luck and happy trails!