I pay close attention to the conversations going on in many of the indoor cycling forums and Facebook groups. I notice what they are discussing and what are the biggest challenges. I also see what some of them—especially newer instructors—get wrong. One of those topics is warm-ups. The advice given in some of these groups on how to warm up can lead a new instructor down the wrong path. There is a science behind warming up properly, and it’s not always the same way for every type of workout.
For this reason, I am resurrecting this six-part series on the Art of the Warm-Up, originally written in 2016. I will be editing it and adding new material in the process, so even if you have seen this before, you will still get a lot out of it. We have many new members of ICA since then so it will be the first time many of our members see this series. As always, please leave any questions you may have in the comments.
Is your cycling or Spinning class warm-up helping or hindering your riders?
I admit, I used to warm up poorly, to my own detriment. If I knew back then what I know now, things would have been so much better!
Let me start with a personal story.
Back in 1993, I competed in my first mountain bike race. I was fairly new to the sport, though I’d been road riding for many years. To put it bluntly, I sucked. My first race was in Nantahala in North Carolina, a few hours north of where I lived in Atlanta at the time. For that race, my goal was not to be last. Yes, I seriously made that statement to my boyfriend at the time who had talked me into participating in this murderous event. That’s when I first learned the truth to the statement watch out what you wish for! I finished 15th out of 16 women; I beat the girl in the skirt, but just by a handful of seconds.
After I crossed the finish line in complete and utter pain and misery, I rode up to my boyfriend, threw my bike down, and said, “Never, ever, EVER again!” He just smiled at me.
Three weeks later I finished in the top five of my second race. I had been bitten by the bug!
When I moved to Vail, Colorado, a year later, I started racing in the local mountain bike race series, gradually moving to the middle of my age group. But still, I sucked. Wind, that is. I sucked wind. Not just because the races in Colorado start at a base of 8,100 feet (2,465 m) and often went up to 10,000 feet (3,050 m) but also because I never really learned how to warm up properly. If only I knew then what I know now!
I didn’t warm up at a high enough intensity.
Basically, I was afraid to go hard before the race started. I would ride around at an easy pace for about 10–15 minutes prior to the start of the race, just to get my legs warm. I thought if I went hard I’d be “wasting” energy that I’d need during the race. If you know anything about mountain biking, it’s a very high-intensity sport that relies heavily on the anaerobic system and on fast-twitch muscle fibers. Whenever I raced, without fail, I would be dropped in the first 100 yards. Yup, dead last within the first minute of an hour-long race, eating the dust of all those bikes. For about 20 minutes, my legs and lungs were screaming at me.
I learned long ago that I’m much more of an endurance athlete, likely endowed with a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers. I just don’t do well at high-intensity events. I don’t particularly enjoy that anaerobic intense burn, although I’ve learned to deal with it. (You might ask why I kept racing. Well, I asked myself the same question! I stopped racing after 5 years, but I still love to mountain bike.)
Eventually, I would start to pick off the other riders one by one, and usually finished somewhere from the middle to the top third of the pack. The longer the race, the better I did as endurance became a more important factor. But oh, those first few miles were utter misery! One reason is that my muscles were experiencing the buildup of lactate and acid for the first time in those first few miles, and my oxygen and fuel transport system had not yet been primed for that level of effort. In other words, my body hadn’t been prepared in advance for what I would experience in the race.
What I should have done prior to the race, after spending some time riding easily to warm the muscles, was some short, moderate- to high-intensity surges, gradually getting close to the point of breathlessness.
There is a fine line between doing enough to prepare your muscles and cardiorespiratory system for the hard effort to come, and doing so much that you fatigue too early and risk reducing your performance. Athletes learn this through trial and error and eventually fine-tune exactly how much and how hard they need to prepare prior to an event. Indoor cycling instructors, on the other hand, are the ones defining how long and how hard the warm-up is for their riders and should arm themselves with correct information.
I know some instructors and students who say that they can’t be bothered warming up when they only have 40 or 50 minutes of actual riding time in an indoor cycling class. Are they doing their students and themselves a disservice, or are they “warming up” anyway, even if they don’t call it that?
Do you know how to warm up properly for your classes? Do you know what intensity you should target during a warm-up? Do you know what cadence is most effective for warm-ups, and why? Do you always warm up the same way regardless of the type of class? And is it even applicable for a one-hour cycling class to consider how a cyclist might warm up outdoors for an event or for a ride?
A proper warm-up depends on numerous factors: your objective for the class, your desired intensity for the profile, how long you plan to be at higher intensities, and whether you will be doing shorter higher-intensity intervals or longer threshold-intensity intervals. In cycling, the longer the event or planned ride, the shorter and less intense a warm-up is required. In other words, you don’t need to warm up prior to a 50- or 100-mile ride; your first few miles miles will serve that purpose since you won’t be racing out of the gate. But since most indoor cycling classes are 45 to 60 minutes, your warm-up may be more important than you imagine. Also, you’ll need to know how to interpret your heart rate response during a warm-up because it may not be what you expect.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of scientific studies that show conclusively how long or how intense a warm-up should be, but there are plenty of theories and loads of anecdotal evidence. But one thing that is sure: there must be a progressive warming-up period prior to high-intensity efforts.
If you are teaching a HIIT profile, use the first interval or two as an “extension” of the warm-up before getting into your main set, gradually stepping up intensity instead of diving headfirst into it after a 5-minute “easy” period. You can choose to let your class know it’s part of the warm-up or not. Sometimes the word “warm-up” might turn off your less-informed riders who believe time spent warming up is taking away from their ability to “torch” calories.
In part 2, we’ll look at what is happening on a physiological level when warming up to shed light on why a progressive warm-up is so important. Part 3 will dive into perceived exertion, and how it might not jive with your heart rate during the warm-up period. This is important to know if you are using heart rate as a benchmark in your classes. Parts 4, 5, and 6 will provide suggestions for how to best prepare your students for your planned profile depending on your objective and includes eleven targeted warm-ups for thirteen different types of rides.
Yes, you read that correctly…we are giving you eleven sample warm-ups for thirteen different objectives! ICA always delivers on the best educational content for instructors!
If you have any specific questions about warm-ups, please ask them in the comments below and be sure to check out the other articles in this series.
The Art of the Warm-Up, Part 2: What Is Happening Physiologically?
The Art of the Warm-Up, Part 3: Perceived Exertion
The Art of the Warm-Up, Part 4: Sample Warm-Ups for Endurance and Climbing Profiles
The Art of the Warm-Up, Part 5: Sample Warm-Ups for Workouts at Threshold
The Art of the Warm-Up, Part 6: Sample Warm-Ups for High-Intensity and Loop Profiles