With race season rapidly approaching and training sessions shifting into high gear, maximizing your efforts and post-effort recovery, as well as staying healthy and injury free are crucial to continuing to build your fitness and maximizing performance. Warm-up and warming-down are two components to incorporate into your daily training sessions as the intensities increase and racing takes off.
Prior to beginning and upon completion of every workout and/or race, a proper warm-up and warm-down must be performed. These two components of your training program allow you to gain the most out of every individual training session. In addition to the physiological benefits there are also psychological benefits of warming-up and warming-down. During these times you can mentally prepare yourself for the workout ahead by thinking through the work you will be doing, the goals you have for the training session and the target measurements you are seeking. Frequently neglected by the busy and rushed athlete, there is much to be gained from incorporating a proper warm-up and warm-down into all of your training sessions.
A properly performed warm-up consists of gradually raising the intensity of movement from a very slow pace to a faster pace over a specific period of time. The highest pace you reach during your warm-up is typically up to and sometimes just over your anticipated training zones for the session. The early part of the warm-up is perfect for practicing some technique or form drills while the intensity is still low and slow. The gradual increase in intensity allows for improved blood-flow to your working muscles and slowly raises your core temperature to optimal levels. This increase in blood-flow and core-temp allows your body to prepare itself for the work ahead while reducing the chance of injury.
The amount of time the warm-up requires relates to the both the duration and anticipated intensity of your workout or race.
In general, the more intense your workout the longer your warm-up. Also shorter workouts often require longer warm-ups, especially if the intensity will also be high. For a low-intensity endurance workout the warm-up can often be a substantial part of the entire workout. For example, if you are heading out for a three hour aerobic ride your intensity may not exceed that of your “warm-up intensity.” Likewise let’s say you are going to do three 20-minute tempo intervals within that three-hour ride, you might ride the first hour of the ride as your warm-up, gradually raising your heart-rate up near your expected interval-pace heart-rate prior to beginning your specific intervals. As a rule-of-thumb often the longer your workout, the longer your warm-up period, as the warm-up itself can be aerobic training.
The length of your warm-up prior to a race is typically more condensed and more specific. The guideline to follow prior to racing is the shorter the race, the longer and more intense your warm-up. So for a 20k time trial or sprint triathlon your warm-up could be as long or longer than the actual duration of your race! During this time you will also get your heart-rate level very high, right up and possibly a little higher than the effort you will be racing at. On the other hand, prior to an eight hour endurance race your warm-up may only consist of lightly riding around the start area or similar light activity to prior to the start.
Air temperature also plays a role in the length of your warm-up. The hotter it is the shorter your warm-up, and the cooler it is the longer your warm-up will need to be. This correlates directly to your core body temperature and getting it high enough to race well, but not too high to fatigue you. Often before a hot race your warm-up might be less than half the duration than normal. Before a cold race you will definitely want to wear several layers of clothing to help raise your core-temp and in some cases you may want to warm-up indoors or on a stationary training device that allows you to get your core-temp up higher more easily than outside in the elements.
Aside from loosening up your muscles, reducing chances of injury and simply feeling better after warming-up, the warm-up also allows your metabolism to warm-up to ensure that you maximize your fat-burning capabilities allowing for an effective workout or race. If you skip your warm-up and jump right into your main training objective or even perform too short of a warm-up, you can easily cause your metabolism to rely on sugar for fuel to quickly and this high sugar burning emphasis can remain for the entire duration of the workout causing you to not effectively burn fat as well as have you fatigue more quickly. By warming-up gradually you stay in your fat-burning zone and build your aerobic base more effectively, even during a high-intensity training session! So to become an efficient fat-burning, aerobic endurance machine, the proper warm-up is critical to success.
Equally important to the training process is an effective warm-down. The warm-down at the end of your workout or race allows your body to return to a resting state gradually. This process allows for the clearing of byproducts associated with high-intensity energy production, allows blood to return to all of the areas of the body that it was diverted from as your intensity increased, and allows your heart rate to return to a lower state, thereby minimizing cardiac stress and pooling of blood in the lower extremities.
The length of the warm-down corresponds to the intensity of the workout you are just completing. The higher the intensity the longer the warm-down needs to be. As with the warm-up, the warm-down can make up a large duration of longer workout, especially if there were higher-intensity work intervals within the ride. However, the warm-down is rarely as long as the warm-up within the same workout. The warm-down should be long enough to bring the heart-rate down close to the pre-workout heart-rates prior to beginning the workout. Rarely will you get your heart-rate all the way down to pre-workout levels as the body will be in recovery mode after a workout and will be left with a higher post-exercise resting heart-rate due to the “recovering” going on by the body. This is especially true with the higher the intensity training or racing that occurred. The most effective warm-down strategy involves simply slowing down over the course of several minutes, allowing the heart-rate and body-temp to decrease.
A proper warm-down will allow the body time to clear waste products produced during high-intensity energy production as well flushing the working muscles with oxygenated blood to begin the recovery process after intense training sessions.
As you slow down, your muscles will require less and less blood to function and allowing blood to return to other areas of your body. A gradual return to normal blood flow prevents the pooling of blood commonly found after abruptly stopping after a hard training session. This pooling of blood is stressful on the cardiac system as well as causes increased inflammation and muscle stiffness requiring increased recovery time following a workout. By incorporating a warm-down at the end of all your training sessions you will not only feel better but you will be helping your body increase it’s own natural recovery process thereby allowing for a more consistent training program and faster progression.