Warm-up is one of those unquestioned things that virtually everyone does before training and competing. Think back to your earliest PE lesson at school. Chances are, you did some stretching, waved your arms and legs around and went for a short jog “to get your heart and muscles going”. That has translated into cycling all the way up to Grand Tours, with dedicated time and facilities for warming up. But does it work? And if so, how does it work, and how do we get maximum benefit from it?
Doing any kind of exercise will warm you up because the human body is not very effiient at harnessing the energy it releases from food. About 75 per cent of it is immediately lost as heat, warming up the tissues and blood nearby. The body tries to get rid of this heat by transferring it to the skin, and the entire body warms up. Physiology textbooks will tell you that warming up the muscle also increases blood flow to muscles, reduces muscle stiffness, increases the speed of nerve conduction, and prepares the heart for future exertion. Although there is an element of truth in all of these ideas, we’ve recently discovered that a warm-up may be better described as an “acid-up”.
One of the key questions you need to answer when designing a warm-up is, “what are you warming up for?” A track sprinter needs to take a very different approach to a time triallist, who will, in turn, warm-up differently to a Grand Tour rider at the start of a big mountain stage. To be effective, you need to match your warm-up to the determinants of the event.
Generally speaking, the physiological importance of warm-up decreases as the length of the event increases. This is because the factors affected by a warm-up (maximal muscle power or high-intensity sustained power) are less important in events or races lasting longer than an hour (see box). That said, don’t underestimate the psychological significance of warming up.
Warm to sprint
The earliest scientific work on warming up was done to determine if warm-ups would improve sprints. Not only was the answer to this question “yes, by quite a lot”, but the sprint performance was directly related to the increase in muscle temperature. A warm muscle, it turns out, can generate a lot more power than a cold one.
The catch is, warm muscles tire more quickly – but in sprint efforts, the increase in power is worth it. Warming up can be done passively (by sitting in a bath, or wrapping pre-heated gel packs/electric blankets around the legs) or actively (by performing moderate-intensity exercise for up to 30 minutes). Warming for longer than this is pointless, or even counter-productive. The sprint event should be performed as soon as practically possible after the end of the warm-up, and no more than 15 minutes afterwards. A sprinter needs to literally warm the muscles up, and keep them warm.
Prime to TT
For races that require sustained power for more than a few minutes (track endurance events, hill-climbs and time trials lasting up to an hour), a different approach is needed. Because you aren’t requiring maximum power but rather sustained submaximal power, warming the muscle up alone is not going to cut it. Instead you need to “prime” the system.
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