By preparing yourself mentally and physically for optimal performance, a proper cycling warm-up is critical to virtual cycling success. But why is the first mile so hard?
There is a widespread and widely accepted belief that a solid cycling warm-up contributes to improved cycling performance. Virtual cyclists practice several warm-ups, usually an active warm-up involving a set protocol of varying intensity, often similar to the competitive event. Others choose to perform an unstructured ride to get ready to race or train.
Key Takeaways for the Virtual Cyclist
Studies have demonstrated that several physiological changes occur when we warm-up, improving performance, particularly during high-intensity exercise. These include increases in heart rate, higher oxygen availability to the working muscles at the onset of activity, or decreased lactate accumulation.
A Few Key Benefits of a Cycling Proper Warm-Up
In a 2005 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the authors studied the effect of various warm-up routines on cycling time trial performance. The study demonstrated a significant improvement in cycle TT performance attributable to warm-up, the magnitude of performance enhancement being about 2–3%.
The authors concluded that the improved performance was due to acceleration of aerobic metabolism through an increase in resting V̇O2 and acceleration of V̇O2 kinetics due to higher O2 availability to the working muscles at the onset of exercise.
A Few Things to Avoid When Warming Up
A recent review by Bishop summarized the effects of a variety of warm-up strategies on performance in brief (<10 s), intermediate (10–300 s), and long (>300 s) events. Critical to the effectiveness of the warm-up was allowing the athlete to begin the event at an elevated muscle temperature and V̇O2, but relatively unfatigued.
Bishop’s literature summary suggested improvements in performance during intermediate-duration events following a relatively low-intensity warm-up, but potential deterioration following a higher intensity (>70% V̇O2max) warm-up unless there is an adequate recovery period between the end of the warm-up and the beginning of the criterion event.
Suppose the warm-up is too prolonged or vigorous. In that case, the athlete may begin competition with either large amounts of detrimental lactic acid or depletion of energy-producing glycogen, which might mimic the situation to be expected midway through the competitive event and hinder performance.
Why are the first five minutes always the hardest?
When we first start to ride, there is a tremendous increase in metabolic requirement by our muscles and oxygen demand by our entire body. The limiter is our heart, and its cardiac output, the blood that it pumps through the body, is forced to increase dramatically.
Cardiac output equals heart rate multiplied by stroke volume, where the stroke volume is the amount of blood the heart pumps in one beat.
Cardiac Output = Heart Rate x Stroke Volume
During the first few minutes of a ride, your entire body will feel a rush as your heart is shocked into meeting your aerobic needs. Your heart rate and stroke volume ramp up to increase cardiac output and meet the stress of the greater oxygen demand place upon it.
A heightened rush due to the sudden increase in breathing rate allows more gas exchange in your lungs, and with an increase in stroke volume, more oxygen to your muscles. At the same time, however, blood flow is diverted from other organs, such as your gastrointestinal tract.
The first five minutes are even more challenging because of this discrepancy. Your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and muscles must work harder to support your exercise demands and accommodate for the mismatch.
Fortunately for the conditioned athlete, your heart rate and stroke volume catch up to the cardiac output required by your muscles and internal organs rather quickly. Once the rush passes and you attain a steady state, your perceived level of exertion will feel normal and allow you to proceed with your warm-up.
Tips to Make the First Five Minutes of Your Cycling Warm Up a Bit Easier
- Be sure to be well hydrated, which will ensure a good stroke volume.
- Try to increase your heart rate slowly and gradually before getting on the bike by performing a muscle activation routine.
- Your body feels adjusted more rapidly if your baseline level of fitness is better and you are more efficient at meeting the metabolic demands of exercise initiation.
The Cycling Warm-Up Theory of Two Experienced Esports Coaches
The most important differentiator between an indoor warm-up versus outdoor is heat management. While your goal is to get your muscles warm and activated, you want to ride the fine line between getting your muscles and aerobic system ready for action and overheating to the point that it can be detrimental.
While this can happen both indoors and out, it’s easy for your core temperature to get too high due to the lack of airflow from remaining stationary. Being overheated is one of the most significant limiting factors when it comes to your steady-state aerobic performance.
Make sure you keep your core temperature down by firing up your fan(s) or using an ice sock before you start feeling like you’re breaking a sweat during your warm-up. Always remember that if you’re sweating, you’re losing watts as your aerobic efficiency declines.
Here's an example warm-up that helps make sure you get your aerobic system and neuromuscular recruitment firing all together:
Start with 5-10 min at endurance intensity
Then 1 x 3 tempo/LT intensity interval
Then 1 x 2 min VO2 intensity interval
Then 2 x 8 second (yes, super short) sprints
Take 2-3 min rest between all efforts.
Then spin super easy for *at least* 8 min before the start, for a total time of 30 minutes.
The key to any warm-up is having some time in each zone but not overly exhausted mentally or physically. Warming up is a way to prepare mentally for being in each level and to remind your body of the feel of each of those zones. There should be no extra strain or fatigue that bears down and accumulates within the warm-up time.
Esports races go out hard and sustain high levels of power. Warming up for these is critical because you want to be mentally and physically ready to jump right off the start.
Jumping straight into a race or hard workout can cause mental fatigue. You want to focus on breathing and relaxing the upper body to allow the body to wake up and feel ready to start. Having this extra mental strength will push you further, and you will have a better race.
The following is an example of an easy 'Go To' warm-up that will give you the right amount of time in each zone and some surges to open your lungs and heart to prepare you for your event.
Start with 5 minutes of easy spinning while focusing on your breathing.
Then step up into an endurance pace of 55 to 65% of your FTP for three minutes.
Then step up to 75 to 80% of your FTP (Tempo zone) for two minutes.
Then bump that up to 85 to 90% of your FTP for one minute.
Then the last step up is to 100% of your FTP (Sustaining threshold) for one minute.
After that, take a three-minute easy spin recovery to catch your breath followed by 4×15 second surges at 120 to 140% of your FTP (VO2 Max) with a one-minute recovery in between.
Finish it off with a few minutes of easy spinning before starting to ensure that you are ready mentally and physically!
The Cycling Warm-Up Application of a Pro Esports Competitor
The following are invaluable thoughts regarding warm-ups from STPC Pro Jacqueline Godbe.
When I swam in college, I would generally count on a progressive, event-specific warm-up. If I was doing an IM, that meant hitting pace in every stroke. If I was doing a freestyle race, that meant I only had to hit one. The idea was to make sure that the muscle groups I intended on using were warm and that my body was familiar with the “feel” of the effort I planned to give.
For triathlon, my approach changed because my races were much longer and lower intensity. I didn’t have a specific warm-up routine. Instead, I would get water in my wetsuit and dance to the pre-race music. It was a combination of fun and functional to shake off pre-race nerves and make sure that my wetsuit was fitting right.
When I transitioned to virtual cycling, there was another change in my warm-up strategy. Like swimming, it’s a targeted warm-up where I try to “hit” some of the power targets I think will be important in the race ahead.
I also try to get the appropriate muscle groups engaged, like throwing in a few standing intervals if I anticipate climbing. Given that virtual races always start with a bang, it’s important to me that I’ve already primed the effort in my warm-up.
My general warm-up template is 8 minutes of increasing intensity to FTP, followed by a few efforts VO2max and sub-maximal sprint. This warm-up usually takes about 15-20 minutes to complete.
Then, I hop off the bike, eat some chocolate and use the bathroom one more time, so I don’t have to worry about anything mid-race. With five minutes to go, I hop back on the bike for easy pedaling before the start. Maybe a little dancing if a perfect song comes on!
A Recent Study Provides an Opposing Viewpoint
A recent study out of the European University of Madrid asked whether a warm-up improves performance, and based upon their findings, the answer is, “no” for many endurance athletes.
The authors had 15 male cyclists perform three 20-minute time trials. For one test, they did no warm-up, the second, they did a standard warmup (10 minutes of cycling at 60% of their max), and for the third, they did five minutes at 60% of their maximum, followed by three, 10-second all-out sprints.
The researchers evaluated the cyclists’ jumping ability, heart rate variability, time trial performance, and perceptual responses during and after the time trial. They found that a warm-up improved jumping ability and resulted in higher initial power output during the time trial.
Neither warm-up had an overall benefit in the time trial, however. Despite a faster start by the cyclists with sprints included in their warm-up, they lost their advantage as the effort progressed and finished at a similar time.
This study points out the difference between the all-out effort required for jumping or sprinting when a warm-up is beneficial with many variables to consider. The benefit becomes less significant as the duration of the event increases.
The psychological factor was not assessed in this study, and it itself is a good enough reason to stick to your warm-up regimen if it makes you feel better.
A solid warm-up signals your energy system to fire up and helps it to get running smoothly. Upon the initiation of exercise, your body requires a lot more oxygen, so your heart rate and breathing increase to ensure enough oxygenated blood is sent to your muscles.
Without a gradual and well-planned warm-up, you are asking your body to start with a big gap that it can’t close, and instead, you end up in oxygen debt as your system needs more oxygen than your body can supply.
A good warm-up increases your body temperature slightly, allowing for improved blood flow, freedom of movement of your joints, and less stiffness of your muscles. The brain-body is activated while you are prepared mentally for the activity that is about to occur.
If you start a race cold, you will soon find yourself gasping for air and in emotional despair as the heave in your lungs and the burn in your legs becomes too uncomfortable to bear.
What warm-up routine or tips help you to hit the line primed and ready to throw down? Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know!
For more great performance tips visit the Training & Performance page on The ZOM!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!