Coachís Column with Alison Dunlap : Fine Tuning Your Prerace
Warm Up for Maximum Results
Question: "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?"
Answer: 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 "asleepĒ. The start of a race can be very intense and your HR can skyrocket within
seconds. If your legs arenít ready for
such a violent start, youíll feel terrible and you wonít be able to ride as
hard as youíre used to or want to. Youíll most likely get dropped from the pack within the first 5-10
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
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 "MastersĒ, 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
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
If you were warming up for an ultra-endurance event I would
do the following: 20min easy spin
followed by a 10min tempo effort. Thatís
There are a couple of other things you should know about
- They are best done on a trainer. You can eliminate the stress of trying to
find a safe place warm-up, you donít 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.
- Do everything in a nice high cadence around
100-110rpms. A lower cadence will load
up your legs and fatigue your muscles.
- 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. Donít try and set a record for highest power
and HR in your warm-up.
- It is easier on your
legs if you do your efforts on a "bell curveĒ.
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 wonít create a build-up of lactic acid.
For example, if my tempo zone is 155-165bpm, I will take 4 Ĺ 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.
- 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 exertionĒ 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 youíre
not riding hard enough. Mentally that
can be very defeating and you will end up thinking youíre 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 donít have to worry about. Power is
power no matter how tired or fresh you are.
- Always do your warm-up with an energy drink and food. If you warm-up with only water and you donít
eat anything you will be quite depleted in carbohydrate reserves and most
likely dehydrated before you start your race.
Youíve already dug yourself into a hole.
- Time your warm-up so that you finish with only 10 minutes to
go before call-up. A great warm-up wonít
do you any good if you finish 30 minutes before your event and you stand around
getting stiff and cold.
- Eliminate distractions from family and friends. Encourage those folks to chat with you after
your race. Your job isnít to be social
while warming up. Stay focused and be a
little selfish. Youíll 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 arenít 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 donít really have to think about;
you just do it.
Good luck and happy trails!
Alison Dunlap is a certified Level II USAC Coach and has
been working with athletes for thirteen years. She coaches both road and
mountain bikers and runs skills clinics and camps throughout the summer with
her company the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps. Alison is also a two-time
Olympian, MTB World Champion, and 13-time National Champion. Please visit www.alisondunlap.com for more information.