On a cold day, you wouldn’t take a car straight out of the garage without first warming up its engine. As a cyclist, you’ve got to do the same for your muscles before hammering away at climbs and town-line sprints.
“Trying to push it too hard too early will make the beginning of your ride not feel great, and that will set the tone for the rest of the ride,” says Kendra Wenzel, head coach at Wenzel Coaching and co-author of Bike Racing 101.
Ideally, she says, you want to give your legs at least 15 to 20 minutes to 'wake up' before hitting the first big effort of the day, or you could miss out on untapped watts. (Depending on your age and the ride you want to do, warmups can last a full hour—but most experts recommend 15 to 20 minutes as a minimum.)
There's also the injury prevention factor: Warm muscles simply function better than those pushed into tough efforts right away.
“Cycling is such a low-impact sport that even if a cyclist doesn’t warm up ideally, it’s unlikely that they would become injured just from lack of warm-up at the beginning of a ride. However, if they were going to do something very intense like uphill sprints in big gears, the risk could go up," says Wenzel.
Here’s how to warm up, not matter what kind of ride you're tackling. (Reach your cycling goals fast with the game-changing interval- and weight-training program in , published by Rodale!)
The experts we consulted all agreed that riders should take things slow at the outset, spinning easy for 10 to 12 minutes. The idea is to let your body gradually and naturally warm up. (Megan Alderete, professional cyclist with Hagens Berman—Supermint, reminds herself to start each ride in the little ring to ensure she doesn’t go out too hard.)
Meditate and Visualize
It's not only your cycling muscles that need to warm up. Use those easy minutes of spinning to evaluate your current mental state and visualize the ride ahead, says Wenzel.
“The first 15 to 20 minutes of any ride will be a period of self reflection,” Wenzel says.
Also, check in with your body. Pay attention to things like how your legs feel: Are they heavy? Are they sore anywhere?
If you haven’t ridden for a few days, it may take more spinning before your legs start opening up.
“Everyone feels terrible before they are warmed up, that's the point of the warm up!” says Marissa Axell, Cat 1 cyclist and partner at San Francisco’s 17th Street Athletic Club. “Leave the judgements at home, and work through your own warmup process.”
Check Your Numbers
After a bit of easy spinning, quantitatively gauge your your efforts against your heart rate and/or power history, if you train with heart-rate monitors or power meters; if not, go by perceived exertion.
Get a better estimation of perceived exertion by watching this video:
Consider: Are you having to work harder than usual to put out a given amount of power, or does it seem easier? If your heart rate is significantly higher or lower than your historical average, this may indicate that there’s some overtraining going on, or maybe even illness.
“Those are signals that can help you decide whether you should continue with a ride as planned or not,” Wenzel says.
RELATED: What Your Power Meter Can't Tell You
Bump Up the Pace
If all is well with your metrics, and you anticipate doing some heavier work that day, you’ll want to start kicking things up after 10 to 12 minutes with a warmup interval, says Wenzel. (Axell tends to start this phase after 30 to 45 minutes; if you're good on time, take as much as you need to warm up.) You'll want to fine-tune how you finish your warmup to fit the kind of ride you plan to do that day.
For most kinds of rides, Axell suggests riding a warmup interval at a moderate-to-hard pace, in the tempo range (if you train with zones, this is Zone 3). Training systems differ, but tempo efforts tend to fit in the range of roughly 75 to 84 percent of your Heart-Rate Reserve: The difference between your max heart rate and resting heart rate.
Axell uses this period to start marrying the legs, the body, and the mind, and often does 10 to 30 minutes of warmup intervals before starting the rest of her workout.
Or Get Specific
For hard rides: “If you’re going to join an intense ride, then it’s a good idea to at least get a few minutes of harder riding in before you get there,” Wenzel says. For a 20-minute warmup, for instance, that means spending 12 minutes spinning easily and 8 minutes in harder territory. Wenzel suggests pushing it over a few rollers (if your rides include lots of climbing) or taking off from a stop sign with extra force.
For a pre-race warmup: In addition to upping your easy spinning to 15 minutes, Wenzel recommends finishing a warmup with a couple alternating periods of intensity. Include a few minutes of race-pace riding, a few minutes at threshold, and a few 8-second spin-ups. To do a spin-up, choose a gear, then wind up your cadence until you’re pedaling as fast as you can without bouncing in the saddle.
No matter what, make sure your warmup is done between 5 and 15 minutes before your race.
RELATED: This Is the Best Pre-Race Warmup
For a winter LSR or century: You likely won’t need a special warmup, Wenzel says. It’s always a good idea to include that early period of self reflection, though.