Warming up and cooling down are fixed in the folklore of exercise. We’ve all seen the inflexible over- straining on the start line and the smug hyper-flexible person stretching after a session, looking more like a circus act than a cooling-off athlete. Various exercises have become ingrained into the psyche of what makes a session too, but the evidence to support some of them is not forthcoming. So let’s sort out why you should really warm up and cool down, and how…
Warming up the body is akin to letting the car idle for a few minutes before driving off. Or at the least driving at low engine ‘revs’ until the engine has reached optimum operating temperature. The human body is much the same: it requires time to reach its ideal working temperature. While you can ‘get away’ with it, going too hard, too hilly or too dynamic, too soon can cause immediate injury or start a long-term problem.
Research suggests neck injuries are the most common complaint among cyclists, possibly relating to position and impact. But, the knees are the next most popular area of injury, and perhaps this is due to a lack of warming up, but that’s only speculative.
What is certain is that elevating the body temperature with aerobic exercise allows the oxygen in the blood to be released more effectively, energy production becomes more efficient and both nervous impulses and muscle viscosity improve. So a few minutes of aerobic riding at moderate intensity, say 50 to 65 per cent of maximum heart rate, gets your whole body ready for more strenuous riding.
Rush, rush, rush
For many fitness or recreational riders, time spent cruising for a few minutes can be thought of as ‘wasted time’. But interestingly, very fit riders often take longer to warm up because their potential maximum power and energy production is much greater than a keep-fit rider. You could say their potential to cause damage is much greater.
So how can you warm up before riding to ensure the nerves, muscles and energy pathways are prepared? One of three ways: passive, general or specific. Passive is simply being in a warm environment, such as sitting in a warm room or even a sauna (not so practical that one, I agree). General is doing activities that move the body, but that are not necessarily the same as the intended exercise. You could run on the spot for five minutes for example. Some people also think that stretching is applicable though you will see below that it isn’t.
The best warm up is a specific one – one that uses the exercise you are going to perform but at low intensities. Spinning on an exercise bike for 10 minutes at 50 per cent effort is ideal to warm up before a cold ride with a very early steep hill.
WARM UP TIP Ride a 5 to 10-minute set loop around the block on an easy warm-up lap before starting your ride proper. Alternatively 5-10 minutes on a stationary bike or indoor trainer will do nicely.
Stretching: the truth The Journal Sports Medicine published an article entitled ‘Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship’. It’s a great title and it should immediately have you thinking that perhaps stretching is not all that it’s cracked up to be. The study presented clinical evidence to suggest that stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent injuries. It suggests that you are better off doing aerobic work than bizarre stretching routines. Think about it; how far are your ankle, knee, hip and lower back actually bending when you ride? Not far.
The experts also noted that the stretching of tendons is not advantageous for cycling where the range of motion is limited. We are not 100m runners or gymnasts. It would be useful to get a massage to get those tight shoulders from working at a computer loosened up, and the cyclist’s bent lower back straightening, but don’t rely on stretching for it.
Indeed recent research shows that general fitness, rather than stretching, is more important in injury prevention. Evidence suggests that increasing the range of motion beyond your required function through stretching isn’t beneficial and can actually cause injury and decrease performance itself. Where stretching has been found to aid performance it only does so after a 5 min plus aerobic warm up.
WARM UP TIP If you want to stretch after an aerobic warm up, keep the stretching light and relaxed. Never use stretching to warm a muscle instead of riding, it’s still cold inside and will be straining like mad.
After a race take an electrolyte drink, some carbohydrate (liquid or solid form) and be sure not to exaggerate the dehydration effects of an event by sun bathing, sitting in a boiling car or drinking excessive alcohol. A cold pack on your back while driving home can be a real winner for comfort.
Hands up who actually has the time to slow up at the end of a ride and cool down? Note how I say ‘cool down’, as warm-down is not the right term. You are literally letting the body cool. This allows heat to be got rid of, the heart rate to start to return towards lower resting levels and hormone levels to get back to normal. Your brain also has to return from ‘exercise world’ to normal life.
Studies show a lower resting HR is achieved after exercise when doing a cool down. It also results in improved heart function compared to when stopping abruptly. So, light riding plays an important role in facilitating blood return to the heart from the muscles. It also helps to restore the elevated heart rate to the pre-exercise resting level. As such it’s not a waste of time, but a better way of easing your body into recovery mode and helping you fit back into the real world.
It’s also after exercise that some people like to stretch. If you have the time that’s great, but don’t cut short your warm up or cool down periods (10 mins each) for the sake of becoming super flexible. Studies show this facet of fitness does not reduce injury risk. Some data even suggests it increases the risk of injury. You’re a biker not a gymnast, so flexibility work is an add-on.
COOL DOWN TIP Take 5 to 10 minutes to reduce effort and spin lightly – again this could be on a stationary bike. You may like to do light limbering up or stretching work but it is nowhere near as important as proper warm-up and cool-down time.