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How to warm up for a cycling event.

Warm up routine, why?

Warming up should be an essential part of your training regime, to prepare your body and your mind to perform to the best of your ability. When you are faced with a hard effort, such as a race or an interval session, not doing one will significantly compromise your performance. 

By doing a warm-up, your body will respond in a number of physiological ways that are essential for optimising your performance.

The main aim of the warm up is to warm up (funny that!) - to raise the temperature of your muscles so that blood flows more easily around the body to muscles which become more supple and more efficient. Part of the warm up would be to increase the range of motion within joints. The range of motion needed for cycling isn’t huge, but it is important you do not feel restricted from cold muscles at the top of the pedal stroke or while getting in and out of the saddle once the efforts start. The gradual increase in the intensity of the warm up lets your body slowly get warmer, more comfortable with the raised heart rate and breathing rate, and prepares the body for the first real effort of the day. By ramping up to around 98% of FTP for only 3minutes it means you are ready but have not accumulated any real fatigue before the session or race.

More often than not, you don’t feel great in the warm up. However, it’s better to not feel great in the warm up than in the first effort or the first 5 minutes of a race.

The second part of the warm up is all about neuromuscular activation, where signals will be sent from your brain through the nervous system and to your muscles to tell them to switch on rapidly and to recruit a large percentage of the muscle fibres. This means doing very short explosive efforts to prepare for the demands of the race or session. The first couple of efforts can sometimes feel weak and uncoordinated, so opening up these pathways is really important.

For Cyclocross where the temperatures are normally low, it is really important to warm up thoroughly as your muscles will be colder than what you are normally used to and therefore it will take longer to get warm. Blood vessels in non essential parts of your body furthest from your vital organs may well have begun to close up slightly if you have allowed yourself to get especially cold. Conversely if you are racing in the summer or even early season Cyclocross when the temperatures may well be quite high it is less important. In fact it is more important to be aware of not letting your core temperature rise too high before the start of the event. Ice jackets, cold wet towels and ice packs can all be used to keep cool by placing them or wrapping them around parts of the body where the blood flows close to the surface of the skin such as your wrists. You will still need to raise your heart rate through your zones and get your lungs opened up, as well as performing the neuromuscular part of the warm up. There are a number of ways of doing this without actually riding for too long though. A couple of squat jumps can be performed to recruit muscle fibres in an explosive manor. While you can buy small gadgets which restrict your air flow when breathing through them to stimulate the opening up of the lungs and muscles involved in deep breathing. The normal warm up protocol should be adapted to suit.

Another over-looked part of having a planned warm-up routine is the psychological element. By starting with a ramped intensity and some sprints, the mind focuses on what is about to take place and will take your mind off of any nerves which may have crept in, especially on race day. Ideally, you should be relatively relaxed and focused on the task in hand, rather than worrying about what others are doing. Take your warm-up time to focus on what is coming up and any race strategies that you have worked out with your coach or thought about yourself before the event. You can run through the race course in your head, thinking about where you are going to go hard, where you are going to recover, your breaking points, what gear you need to be in for certain parts of the course and how you want the race to play out in your mind’s eye.

An age-old rule of thumb is that the shorter and more explosive an event is, the longer the warm-up needs to be. Before an all-out explosive effort such as a track sprint, riders may spend more than an hour building up to the race.

For events such as time trials, shorter circuit road races, XC mountain bike and cyclocross events, a warm-up will typically be in the 20-40 minutes range. Below is the example warm up which I use myself and give to clients.

Example to VELD Coached warm up -

  1. Warm up

5 min @ 40-50 % of FTP

  1. Ramp up in 4 steps

3 min @ 60-65 % of FTP

3 min @ 70-75 % of FTP

3 min @ 80-85 % of FTP

3 min @ 91-98 % of FTP

  1. Recovery

3 min @ 50-60 % of FTP

  1. Repeat 2 times

10 sec @ 120-150 % of FTP

1 min @ 50-60 % of FTP

  1. Cool Down

5 min @ 40-50 % of FTP

Total time – 27mins 20secs

I personally do not do any stretching before an event as the general consensus is that static stretching before exercise does not prevent injury or enhance performance. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that static stretching may be detrimental to the athlete and especially for explosive events such as the start of a Cyclocross race or Zwift race.

A cool down, how and why?

A cool -down will help return your body to its pre-exercise, resting state and will aid recovery and adaptation processes. It should be viewed as the first step to preparing your body for your next training session, race or event. I have found it makes a massive difference after a Cyclocross race in terms of how I feel two days later in the first proper training session of the week (usually on a Tuesday). When I don’t perform a cool-down after the Sunday race, it takes me a lot longer to get into the ride Tuesday and more often than not, I never feel quite as good.

A progressive cool-down will help remove metabolic waste products from your muscles by keeping an increased blood flow. A cool-down will also minimise the likelihood of you feeling dizzy or faint after exercise. It helps re-distribute the blood around the body away from the lower extremities where blood has been vigorously pumped throughout the training or race.

As with warming-up, higher intensity efforts require longer cool downs to return the body to its pre-exercise state. As a rule, enough time should be taken to progressively bring the heart rate down to near resting levels while still turning your legs over at a high cadence. This will typically take 10-15 minutes and should ideally be factored into the end of every hard ride or race. After the warm down is where some light stretching can take place, while the muscles are still warm and open to wider ranges of movement. After sitting on the bike in one position for so long it can be a great way to wind down the body and mind after a hard session.

Further tip

Don’t forget that the first 20 minutes after exercise is the time the body is most open to taking in and using food. Working all of this into a set routine and making all of these tips a habit is the key to continued development and progression.


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