Dear Coach: What’s the Importance of Warming Up and Cooling Down?

Injury prevention and preparation are just two of the many reasons why we should warm up and cool down.

Photo: Johnny Zhang

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We all know that it’s best to start workouts with a warm-up and end with a cool-down, but all too often athletes tend to skip one or both, especially if pushed for time. This can be a sure-fire recipe for disaster that can lead you to underperform in key workouts as well as leave you at much higher risk of injury. You would never just get into your car and hit the accelerator within a few seconds; you need to move through the gears to prime the body to hit your session or race.

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Why You Should Warm Up

A warm-up before a training session or race is essential for preparing your body for exercise. It allows you mentally to prepare your mind for the session, especially if you’re going to be working hard and asking a lot of yourself with some higher intensity efforts.

Warming up will not only help you to perform better, but it will also protect your body from injury. A good warm-up increases the blood flow to your muscles and primes your energy systems. It also helps increase the range of motion to your joints and muscles, which should allow your muscles to feel less stressed and stiff when you start your main set, allowing everything to get activated. To start exercising hard without a gradual warm-up is asking your body to play catch up on these processes, which it simply can’t do, and instead you end up in oxygen debt as your energy system needs more oxygen than your body is able to supply. This is one of the key reasons why I suggest my athletes use a power meter: it is a great way of controlling the build-up of a warm-up. Heart rate often lags behind.

On the bike, a good warm-up should consist of five to 10 minutes of easy spinning, and after that I always suggest working for one minute in each zone (zones 1-5). This really helps “open up” your body. After that, I typically prescribe a three-minute recovery period before hitting a flat-out sprint of 15 seconds in a high gear, followed by another three minutes of recovery. Next, I prescribe a low cadence sprint at maximal effort before a four-minute recovery block going into your main set. This helps stimulate a full range of activation through the energy systems and also helps you focus mentally on the workout ahead.

Why You Should Cool Down

The duration of a cool-down should last around five to 10 minutes and, on the bike, I would recommend you do this at a higher cadence of around 90-100 RPM (revolutions per minute). Cooling down helps to gradually decrease your heart rate and get rid of the metabolic waste from your muscles.

Mentally, cooling down also allows you some space to reflect on your performance and gives you some time to set you up for the rest of the day. Don’t underestimate the importance of this!

Matt Bottrill is a UK-based cycling coach and bike fit expert and runs

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