This week’s Training Tuesday series article by Chris Mayhew of JBV Coaching focuses on how to plan and execute your cyclocross warmups. Cyclocross season is a few weeks away, and now is the time to start planning your warmup and race day routine.
Warmups. It’s something I get asked about consistently at cyclocross camps. I thought I had addressed it in this column from last month. But based on the feedback I received, I didn’t, and I’ve got to give the people what they want.
So let’s talk explicitly about warmups. I’ll give you my best recommendations, but also explain my reasoning, because I know that there are racers and coaches who follow other practices. If there’s one takeaway message, it’s that athletes need to experiment to determine what’s best for them.
My general recommendation is to warm up on course, with minor exceptions. Most of us need as much time on course as reasonably possible to figure out how to solve the various obstacles and challenges we find out there. Where to run, what lines to ride, how to carry speed?
If your race day schedule, and the promoter’s schedule and rules allow for it, get out on the course (as I’ve said before, only do so without tailgating people racing or impacting a current race). More time on course means more time to figure those things out. Riding three to eight laps is a lot of time—anywhere from 30-60 minutes on course. That’s a lot of riding before you even get to your race. You have a finite amount of time to ride during the day, based on the race schedule and how much volume you ride during the week. After 30 minutes on course do you really want to warm up on a trainer as well and then race? That’s a two-hour day, easily. Are you riding that much in a day during the week? Probably not at the amateur level during the race season. Save the riding for the race.
There’s good evidence that a warm up doesn’t appreciably increase performance. I know we all need some warm up just to feel limber. But there’s no evidence that you need any more than that. Prey animals don’t get a chance to warm up before being chased by a predator. Humans are pretty good about that whole fight or flight thing.
What you are doing on the trainer is potentially incurring a big thermal load. For every one watt of power you see on your power meter, you’re generating three as heat. That’s a lot of heat to have to dissipate, made worse by the fact you don’t have the cooling airflow of movement helping you shed that load. Add in a sunny parking lot and I think you’re actually handicapping yourself by overheating before the race even starts. If you are spending adequate time on course I think you’re burning kilojoules better spent in the race, or not at all. Coming into a race overheated is a clear performance hindrance.
When do I think you should warm up on a trainer? When actually staying warm is an issue. Cold, muddy, rainy days are great for a trainer warmup as it’s hard to actually stay warm on those days.
Warming up on course on cold, wet days can often be counterproductive, especially if you only have one bike to race. That said, I’ve warmed up in the car with the heater on during chilly, sloppy days and have done just fine.
Why do people warm up on a trainer? As I mentioned earlier, I think that big pool of sweat under the trainer makes people feel like they are doing good work. I get that urge too, but I think it’s not the most productive path. The other reason I have heard, from a lot of pros, is a sense of ritual. It’s a way to take control of the chaos, and execute the same plan over and over before a race.
I think wanting to follow a ritual is a very valid reason to warm up on a trainer. But I would also encourage you to think about some of the drawbacks of it. See if you can work on a more flexible approach on race day in terms of the preparation you need to get your head in the game. Rather than focusing on doing the same thing, try to focus on discovering what’s appropriate for the day. Also keep in mind that the pros often have a lot more time available for course inspection, so their race day inspection becomes less important.
The Three Lap Plan
I can feel your impatience…you still want to know what I think you should be doing? I think you should get in at least three laps:
- First lap: Slow, for basic inspection
- Second lap: A bit faster, to see what’s troublesome
- Third lap: Fast, to make sure everything rides at speed the way you think it should.
Feel free to do two of each of these laps if you can and if you normally ride that much. Physiologically, they have a nice progression from easy to hard as well, activating each system as you go. Spend time figuring out what troubles you, and how you’re going to ride each section of the course. During the race there shouldn’t be any guessing or hoping—that’s not a plan. You should be making clean, pre-planned executions. Do enough warmup that you feel good, confident and prepared for the race. Don’t do so much that you’re tired or overheated, or on the flip side, cold and shivering on a wet day.
Just before you start, get in two to four efforts from the start grid to the first corner if you can. Again, you’re trying to see how that portion of the course rides at speed. You’re working through the last bit of exercise intensity pyramid as well with these starts. And then, as mental tip, wipe the slate clean. You’ve done everything you can at this point. Don’t overthink the race, don’t let your nerves take over. Wipe all those worries off the chalkboard and stage with a sense of calmness and a readiness to accept and react to what’s going to happen. You can’t control the chaos of the start. (And remember, once the gun goes off, don’t blow all your preparation and training on trying to get the holeshot. More on that in my “Focusing on Your Starts” column here.)
What to do for a warmup? It’s a very common question. I think a lot of it can be rephrased as “What should I do to adequately prepare for my race?” With that in mind I’d emphasize getting to know the course as well as possible. If you do want to use a trainer, understand the benefits and drawbacks of using one. Do enough that you feel good, but don’t give into the feeling of obligation that you “should” be doing something, just because you see a fellow racer or pro doing it. Warmups and bike racing are largely selfish activities, and that means on on any given race weekend, you should focus on what’s best for you.
’Cross Is Coming. Get ready for your best cyclocross season ever with all of our Training Tuesday pieces here from coaches Mayhew, Adam Myerson and Kenneth Lundgren and others. Can’t get enough? See our Cyclocross Academy and Cyclocross 101 articles here.