It should be a routine.
Race day should feel like any other day in terms of preparation. The same food, the same routines, the same mental game. Don’t do something in warm up you’ve never done before or something you only do on race day. Every time you do a workout, it’s a chance to practice your entire race day. It’s also a chance to find out what works and what doesn’t. If you fail in training, that’s awesome; really! You just learned something with a pretty low penalty for failure. So try no warm up, and try a very long warm up. See what happens and what does and does not work for you. At worst, you can call an Uber, right? You can’t do that on race day.
A proper warm up should prepare you for the demands of your event, aka, it should be specific.
A hurdler’s warm up is not going to look like a pitcher’s warm up, and neither of those is going to look like a cycling warm up. Since we’re all pedaling a bike in a reasonably similar manner, there’s not much in the way of movement patterns to practice beforehand. That said, a criterium, cyclocross or MTB warm up should definitely include some course inspection that involves riding key features of the race. For a time trial, you obviously want to warm up on your time-trial bike in an aero position.
That leads to the third guideline for warming up: make sure it’s as long as necessary but as short as possible. I see so many people set up a trainer in a parking lot (in the sun!) and whale away for an hour on it before a race. They are depleting a lot of resources and handicapping their performance. Pedal as much as you need to so that you feel comfortable before your event. But don’t leave your best effort on the trainer or come into your event exhausted. I know that a lot of masters and very slow-twitch athletes feel they need a lot of time to get going, but don’t do so much that you can’t perform well late into your event.
Let your event guide what you do beforehand. The longer the effort, the more time you have to ease into it, and the less time you need to warm up for it. For instance, for a 40k time trial, you have somewhere around an hour to boil the frog, e.g., gradually increase the intensity of your riding until you’re cooked. So you don’t have to go full blast from the gun. On the other hand, something short and hard like a crit or cyclocross race is going to require a lot of intensity from the gun and allow no room for warm up. For that, you want to be completely ready to go when you toe the line.
I would suggest timing your consumption of any pre-race nutritional product you might use for your event. Practice different timings of consumption as part of your warm-up. This will help ensure a peak advantage is achieved at the most optimal time.
I’d suggest structuring your warm-up with consideration of your effort pyramid (workout zones).
In other words, you want to spend a little time in each zone in inverse proportion to that zone.
For example, for a fairly robust workout (e.g., would work pretty well for just about anything):
From there you want to tailor that to your event and the conditions.
Is it cold? Maybe go longer. Hot? Maybe go shorter. How long is your event? The longer the event, the shorter the warm up. How long is your typical training ride? Don’t spend an hour warming up for an hour event when your typical training volume is 90 minutes a day. What zones will you be hitting during your event? For a time trial, you might not ever really hit Level 5/6 that hard, so why do it in warm up? The idea is to tickle each energy system you’ll be using without exhausting it.
Finally, make sure it’s not a crutch.
You will be running late one day. Or an event will not be smoothly run. At some point, you are going to be crunched for time and changing into chamois at lights. (Pro tip: put the car in park.)
Your warm up will be the first thing to get cut.
Do not be so dependent on your warm up as a piece of mental preparation that you can’t live without it. Avoid the mindset of “if I do not get in my exact warm up, my entire event is going to go sideways“. “No fate but what we make.” Accept that not getting in your preferred warm up is the new reality and figure out how you are going to deal with it and still execute your best performance. For example, I had a client miss out on most of their time trial warm up due to circumstances beyond their control. Post-race, we talked about how they dealt with it (accept it and move on). But more importantly, they came to me with a list of ideas on how to handle it the next time.
There are plenty of activation movements that can be done in one place that will target the key muscles used in cycling. These movements can be done with very limited time, or even while in line for the start of your time trial. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.
In conclusion, your cycling warm-up will be unique to your event with consideration to the environment, terrain, and distance. The key is to practice your warm up to reach peak performance by becoming as efficient as possible.
Make your warm up become a competitive advantage.
Chris Mayhew has been racing for over 25 years. In addition, Chris has been coaching for over 12 years.
He’s competed in Cyclocross, road, and MTB over the years. You can find him on Twitter at @csmayhew and on Instagram at @seemayhem.
If you’d like to meet him in person, you can find him at numerous cyclocross clinics around the Mid Atlantic or leading the Pittsburgh cyclocross practice.
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