Warm Up or Die

"What a horrible day.

I was late getting to the start of the race, so my warm-up was about 20 minutes long. I pedaled easy around the start area, but never found my rhythm. I really didn't feel loose at the start of the race.

As soon as the gun went off, the pace was searing and we were heading straight uphill. I was in the lead pack for about 10 minutes of what was a 20-minute hill-climb event. I can tolerate a good deal of pain; but no matter how hard I tried to maintain a high speed, I was getting passed like I was standing still. I died. It was demoralizing. My legs felt like charcoal after the event. Now my confidence is shaky. Did I suddenly have a fitness lapse?"

This experience is not unusual. He is a highly fit athlete and did not have a fitness lapse. For his next event, the only thing we changed was to improve his warm-up technique. He was then able to capitalize on his outstanding fitness.

Can a good warm-up have that much affect on a race? Yes.

Why Warm Up?

A good warm-up permits a gradual increase in metabolic processes and prevents premature accumulation of lactic acid. This means less fatigue at higher levels of exercise. The fatigue associated with the accumulation of lactic acid is actually a self-preserving process initiated by the body to protect muscle tissue.

As the acidity within working muscle cells increases, the functional capability of key enzymes decreases in an effort to avoid the release of other enzymes capable of digesting muscle.

Metabolic enzymes work optimally at slightly above normal core temperature (98 degrees Fahrenheit). A warm-up optimizes performance results by allowing the body to prepare for higher workloads.

Imagine slapping a steak on a just-ignited charcoal grill, the flames stretching to the sky. The steak quickly becomes stuck to the grill, burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. Left unattended, the entire steak becomes burnt. Like the steak, great fitness is burned up and ruined if your warm-up is inadequate.

Higher Fitness Needs More Warm-up

Athletes with higher levels of fitness require more warm-up than those with lower levels. Cyclists accustomed to riding three to six hours on a regular basis need a longer warm-up than those accustomed to riding one to three hours. Short, intense, anaerobic events require greater warm-up than long, mostly aerobic events.

In general, begin your warm-up with low-intensity riding and increase the intensity as the warm-up progresses. Include a few intervals at race pace lasting 60 to 120 seconds. Take long rest intervals between the work bouts. Warm-up should not significantly affect energy stores or cause fatigue.

If you experienced a tragic death of fitness last season or in a recent race, recall your warm-up routine. Did you allow your body time to prepare for the high intensity to come, or did you simply jump into competition?

Benefits of a Gradual Warm-up

  • Increases muscle core-temperature, thus decreasing work required for muscle contraction
  • Improves coronary blood flow in the early stages of exercise and reduces myocardial ischemia (poor oxygen supply to the heart muscle)
  • Permits a gradual increase in metabolic processes
  • Enhances cardiorespiratory performance, which allows higher maximum cardiac output and oxygen consumption
  • Prevents the premature onset of lactic acid accumulation in the blood and fatigue during intense exercise
  • Warmed muscles are less susceptible to injury
  • Allows for a psychological warm-up, increasing arousal and focus

20-minute Warm-up
This routine can be done by fit athletes before long races, where the first part of the race is low intensity and serves as part of your warm-up. This abbreviated warm-up can also be used by fit athletes in a time crunch or athletes with lower levels of fitness.

Time (min.) Heart rate zone range*Comments
5 1  
5 1-2 Gently increase intensity from zone 1 to zone 2.
5 2-3 Gently increase intensity from zone 2 to zone 3.
5 2-4/5a 2 x 1-minute accelerations, slowly raising heart rate into zones 4 to 5a by the end of each interval. Take 2-minute easy spins in zone 2 between each acceleration.
Total warm-up time

60-minute Short Time-trial Warm-up for Fit Athletes
When you think back to interval training days, the first interval or two usually feels pretty lousy. As you continue the session, subsequent intervals feel stronger and faster. You want those first couple of intervals done before the race, so you're ready when it begins.

Optimally, the end of your warm-up should be within 15 minutes of the start of the race. This warm-up is intended for time trials less than 30 minutes long. Those with less fitness can decrease the times in the left column.

Time (min.) Heart rate zone range* Comments
10 1  
10 1-2 Gently increase intensity from zone 1 to zone 2. Hold zone 2 for the last 3 to 5 minutes.
10 2-3 Gently increase intensity from zone 2 to zone 3.
3 3-4 Slowly increase the speed, so your heart rate is into zone 4 by the end of the interval.
2 5 Slowly increase the intensity from zone 4, so heart rate just reaches zone 5a by the end of the interval.
10 1-2 Easy spin in zone 1 to 2.
5 2-5b Slowly increase intensity until you are in zone 5b the last 20 to 30 seconds of the 5 minutes. If you are doing an uphill time trial, do this uphill, too.
10 5b-1 Spin easy at a comfortably high cadence, getting heart rate into zone 1 by the end of the 10 minutes.
Total warm-up time

* A reference document on training and racing intensity can be found here.


  1. Martin, David E., PhD, Coe, Peter N., Better Training For Distance Runners, Human Kinetics, 1997, pp 50-74, 357-364.
  2. McArdle, Willam D., Katch, Frank I, Katch, Victor L., Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance, Lee and Febiger, 1991, pp 511-513.

Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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      • Warm-ups Can Make or Break Your Racing

      • Pre-Race Homework: Knowing is Half the Battle

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