When you have limited time to ride, it's often very hard to "sacrifice" that very precious time with a warm-up. Sometimes it's just the excitement of getting out on our bikes that makes us start too hard, or perhaps you're at the mercy of a group ride that sprints out of the parking lot. While almost anyone who's raced has most likely warmed-up and believes in the value of warm-up, many choose to omit a warm-up before a group or solo ride or a training session.
So is skipping a warm-up a big deal?
If you are interested in putting forth your best performance and just feeling better, I believe so. Although science on the cool-down is not so clear, there is indeed much research supporting the notion that a warm-up provides a performance benefit.
Here are five reasons why you may want to make sure you always work in a warm up before you rides.
1. Increase Body Temperature
It doesn't take much to see that this is probably where the term "warming-up" comes from. We are literally increasing our body temperatures. While getting too hot can be detrimental, the enzymes that are linked to energy production get fired up with this increase in temperature. This means your muscles will be better able to do the work you're about to ask of them.
2. Increase Blood Flow and Circulation
Our muscles need blood to do work. By increasing our heart rate slowly during a warm-up, we'll be also increasing the muscular blood flow. Our body gets the signal that we need to start dedicating more of the blood for our muscles, again getting them ready and capable of doing the upcoming work.
3. Establish Range of Motion
According to Cyclist.co.UK and sport scientist Greg Whyte:
‘The muscle fibres need to be activated, which means increasing bloodflow and establishing range of motion. These muscles include those associated with respiration – the diaphragm and intercostals – that assist with breathing and supplying oxygen to the muscles.
More oxygen to the muscles equals better performance.’
So it's more than just our leg muscles, it's also the muscles involved in breathing that can get better activated. Bonus!
4. Reduces Muscle Stiffness and Increase Speed of Nerve Conduction
Think of a piece of meat that's straight from the freezer. Certainly not very flexible at all. Now consider one out of the refrigerator. More flexible, but still perhaps a bit "stiff." Now let it heat up to room temperature and a bit above, and it becomes more an more flexible. The same is true with our muscles. It's not as large a shift as frozen to thawed, but that increase in temperature can make our muscles more flexible which means they can move more easily. While this is happening, the speed of nerve conduction is increased, which means the signals get communicated more quickly. Some also believe that this will help to prevent injuries, but there is not much science behind. To me, however, that does make some sense in that supple muscles seem less likely to get aggravated with doing hard work.
5. Prepare Yourself Mentally for Your Ride or Workout
While this one does not have quite the same science behind it as it's hard to measure, many believe this is a very important and beneficial piece of warming-up. This aspect may even be more important than the purely physiological ones. By consciously preparing our mind, we can get focused on what's coming up. This may be simply detaching yourself from your other worldly tasks, problems, and concerns. Those chores, work projects, e-mails, etc. won't get done while you're out on your ride. During the warm-up is a great time to "put them in a box" and put that box on a shelf in your mind. They haven't gone away, but don't let them creep into your focus and fun while riding your bike. On a more dramatic level, if you're too distracted to focus on your ride, you may become a safety concern not only for yourself but others around you. I can definitely remember crashing at least once on my mountain bike after having been distracted with my thoughts.
In a future post, I'll write about some guidelines for your warm-ups. For now I'll suggest taking at least 10 minutes to slowly increase your heart rate, and if there is going to be hard efforts or a fast group ride start involved, one or two "hard" efforts of 30-60 seconds.
If you want a better ride, take the time to warm-up.
What do you do for a warm-up? Do you skip warm-ups? Thoughts? Ideas? Questions? Please post below.
Here are some great resources to check if out if you want to learn more:
Thanks for reading.
Coach B.L. is the head coach at BJL Coaching and an avid racer and cycling enthusiast himself.