Toolbox: The Warmup Skip-Up
You’ve seen a thousand articles on proper warm up technique. In nearly 20 years of racing I can count the number of times I achieved a full and proper warm up before an event on two or three hands. This article aims to teach you how not to warm up or more specifically, how to not need to warm up.
I’m talking about a solid hour on the rollers with 20 minutes of zone 1 and zone 2, a half dozen leg openers and a 10 minute cool down.
There are several reasons for this. Without a complete ProTour entourage of mechanics, managers and soigneurs, it is very difficult to make all the necessary pre-race preparations before your start time, let alone achieve a thorough warm up. Registration, dressing, prepping the bike, fueling, filling bottles, etc. Getting through this routine takes a great deal of effort, time and concentration. While a warm up is important, it is not required the way filling your bottles or pinning your number is. So often it is the first thing to go out the window when crunched for time.
There are some more basic reasons as well. Warming up isn’t always fun. It takes a great deal of self-control. For some people this means keeping the effort under control. For other people (like myself), it requires staying on the bike and ignoring distractions and boredom.
The warm up is also difficult for people with a very limited amount of time to ride. When you only have 70 minutes three times a week, you don’t want to spend 60 of those minutes warming up.
Of course these are all just excuses. The warm up is important and in a perfect scenario, it would never be ignored. But in case you haven’t noticed, in life and in cycling, the perfect scenario is rarely achieved.
Fix It Or Skip It
In my life, I’ve found that there are certain flaws or deficiencies that need to be fixed and there are others that need to be circumvented. When you try and try to fix something that is broken, and continue to fail time after time you have two options.
You can keep banging your head against the wall, possibly never achieving success but creating feelings of failure and disappointment. Or you can figure out a way to sidestep the problem.
In the case of the elusive warm up, I decided on the latter. These are the ways that I negated the negative effects of the absentee warm up.
The Hot Shower
I am a firm believer in the hot shower before a ride or race. This is usually the very first part of my preparation. I would guess that over the years I’ve used this technique on about 70% of my rides and I’ve found it to be a huge factor in allowing me to jump on the bike and rip right into my workout.
In addition to warming up the body the pre-workout shower has added benefits. For one, you get clean. Getting rid of bacteria on your shaved legs and crotch before a ride can help prevent razor bumps and saddle sores.
On a side note, I never use the pre-ride shower to shave my legs. I prefer to do this the night before, giving the tiny nicks and cuts time to close up before I inundate them with sweat and road grime.
The Knee Warmer
I move on to the next part of the warm up routine immediately after the shower. I am fanatical about wearing knee warmers. Before my legs cool down from the shower I immediately throw on my knee warmers. I find that this traps the heat and moisture in the muscles. If I’m going to be eating breakfast or hanging out for a while I usually throw on a pair of sweats as well.
There is nothing better than working up a bit of a sweat before you even step on the bike. On a cold day, this makes those first few minutes of the ride more bearable as the heat radiating from your body gets trapped in your layers of clothing and keeps out the cold outside air until your body temperature has a chance to rise.
This is a useful technique, even if you don’t plan on wearing the knee warmers on the ride. Just take them off just before you get on to the bike. Having said that, I almost always start off with knee warmers, all the way up to the high 70s.
On race days I would do this before getting on the bike. On training days I would do it after the shower but before the knee warmers. There are plenty of good pre-race warm up lotions on the market but simple almond oil works just as well. It’s inexpensive and doesn’t leave you feeling sticky or oily. Use long strokes, moving away from the heart. Don’t over do it.
I don’t recommend oils that contain menthol or other warming agents. Not because they are harmful, I just don’t believe that they actually do anything except irritate your skin. It’s the motion, not the lotion that counts.
Before I say anything about this, I want to state very clearly that you must go very light in your pre-ride stretching routine, especially when using this particular technique because it facilitates a very deep stretch.
This is not the time to improve flexibility. The only objective is to loosen up the muscles a bit.
The PI stretching routine is very simple. You stretch the muscle for 10 seconds and then you flex the muscle for 10 seconds. Repeat this 3 times on each muscle group. Include your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. You will find that after each flexing cycle you will be able to go a little deeper into the stretch. Once again, do not over do this.
Anyone from the North knows all too well about this one. The vehicle warm up. This is the one where you sit in your car with the heat blasting until about 5 minutes before start time. By itself, I’ve found this technique to be very limited because it doesn’t really raise your core temperature and as a result you lose the effect the moment the cold air hits your body. If you use it in conjunction with some of these other techniques it can work a little better.
Oh, and seat heaters! All praise the mighty seat heater.
Don’t Cool Down
Although this is the most effective of all the techniques I recommend, I saved it for last because it mostly applies to the most serious of riders.
The only way to truly negate any need for a warm up is to simply never cool down. Anyone who has done a stretch of daily riding for a week or more or a long stage race, has probably experienced this sensation. After 7 or 8 days of riding in a row, your body goes into a mode that leaves it ready to ride at any time. You’re teaching your body to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
I find this technique very useful during the track season because the shorter the effort, the more important the warm up. So during a peak track period I will always ride twice a day. Usually an easy road ride in the morning and a track workout at night. When you ride twice a day for two or three weeks at a time you experience this state of Zen where your body is just a riding machine. Ready to go the moment you call it up from the bullpen.
Another situation where this technique comes in handy is for the twilight criterium. Only once did I make the mistake of chilling out for the entire day before an important NRC twilight crit. The results were disastrous. I was so down that I was literally off the back before the first turn.
From then on, I always rode for at least an hour on the morning of race day. It doesn’t need to be anything hard. Just an easy stroll to get your body and mind ready for what is to come.
The Night Of Warm Up
If you are a Cat 5 with a 7 am start time, do not despair! Look at it this way. If I do my morning ride at 9am and then race at 6pm, that’s a 9 hour gap. If you were to roll for 30 minutes on the trainer before you go to sleep at 10pm, that’s also a 9-hour gap before you race. So yes, you can actually warm up the night before! You will need less of a warm up the morning of and you will get right into your rhythm on what is usually a very short race.
Improvement or Justification
These are all good techniques and if you use them properly they will help your riding. Are these techniques better than a traditional warm up? While the best thing is going to be a combination of the two, I could also make the case that there are some actual benefits to shortening the warm up.
Warming up saps energy. It’s a mathematical equation. You have a certain amount of energy on race day that you have to spend judiciously. Warming up for an hour burns calories, dehydrates and takes away from time you could spend sleeping, eating or relaxing. So if you can take the start line with the same level of readiness but with 300 extra calories and 10% higher hydration, why not?
Josh Horowitz is the host of Broken Bones Garage, a daily webcast featuring segments on training, sports psychology, nutrition and gritty stories from his days racing in the pro peloton.
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As a coach, Josh has trained national champions, world champions and Tour de France stage winners along with hundreds of amateur racers and recreational riders. His innovative articles on training, strategy, nutrition and sports psychology have appeared in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Bicycling Magazine and The Huffington Post.