Why a Good Pre-race Warm-up is Important

Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport

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 around the start area easy, but never got 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 keep my speed high, people I slaughter on a regular basis pedaled past me. It was demoralizing. My legs felt like charcoal after the event. Now my confidence is shaky. Did I suddenly have a fitness lapse?

The experience described by athlete in the previous paragraph is not unusual. He is highly fit and did not have a fitness lapse. We improved his warm-up technique for the next race and he was able to capitalize on his outstanding fitness.

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

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-limiting process initiated by the body. As the acidity within working muscle cells increases, the functional capability of key enzymes decreases, which slows the rate of fuel breakdown.

This is a safety mechanism to prevent the outer membranes of other intracellular organelles (lysosomes) from becoming unstable.

The outer membrane of lysosomes becomes unstable in acidic conditions and if the membrane ruptures, enzymes capable of digesting the muscle cells are released. In short, the rate of fuel breakdown and pace slows, in order to protect muscle tissue. The body is self-preserving.

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

Imagine turning your charcoal grill on high heat and seeing the flames stretching to the sky. Within 30 seconds of ignition, slap a prime steak on the grill. In short order, the steak is stuck to the grill, burnt black on the outside and raw on the inside. Left unattended, the entire steak is black. Youve just ruined a great steak. Like the steak, great fitness is burned-up, ruined, if warm-up is inadequate.

Athletes with higher levels of fitness require more warm-up than those with lower levels of fitness. Cyclists accustomed to riding three to six hours on a regular basis require more warm-up time than those accustomed to riding one to three hours. Events that are short, very intense and anaerobic require more 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.

The warm-up should not significantly affect energy stores or cause fatigue. The benefits of a gradual warm-up are at the end of this article.

If you have experienced a tragic death of fitness in a recent race, recall your pre-race warm-up routine. Did you allow your body time to prepare for the intensity to come with a good warm-up, or did you die in the flames?

Benefits of a gradual warm-up

  • Increases muscle core temperature that decreases the work required for 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 blood lactic acid accumulation and fatigue at higher levels of intense exercise.

  • Warmed muscles are less susceptible to injury.

  • Allows for a psychological warm-up increasing arousal and focus.


    Martin, David E., Ph.D., Coe, Peter N., Better Training For Distance Runners, Human Kinetics, 1997, pp. 50-74, 357-364.

    McArdle, Willam D., Katch, Frank I, Katch, Victor L., Exercise Physiology Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance, Lee and Febiger, 1991, pp. 511-513.

    Personal Trainer Manual, American Council on Exercise, 1991, pp. 197-199.

    Gale Bernhardt is the author of Training Plans for Multisport Athletes, Workouts in a Box, Workouts in Binder and The Female Cyclist: Gearing up a Level. She coaches intermediate to elite road racers, mountain biker racers and multisport athletes. She can be reached at galebern@ultrafit.com.

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