Warm-Up Hard for Hotter Performances


The gun goes, the starter says ‘go’! Legs or arms are hurting and we’re hanging on wishing we’d done a better warm-up.  I see most masters athletes do an easy warm-up before a race and then wonder why they don’t perform in a race or ‘die’ early in a race that starts out hard. Here’s some recent research evidence from the UK that strongly suggests harder warm-ups are far better than easy ones when it comes to maximising performance.

The Research

Mean power output in watts was determined during a one-minute cycling sprint in 11 trained males cyclists and triathletes (31±11 years; 74.4±10.5 kg; 1.79±0.07m, VO2max 61±5 ml/kg/min) preceded by either an easy, moderate, or hard warm-up and a 10-min recovery. The guys were tested on a cycle ergometer in a lab and used their own pedals and shoes with power cranks used to measure power output. The athletes completed three different warm-ups in a random order and with at least 48 hours between each test:

  1. An easy warm-up consisting of six minutes of cycling at 40% of peak aerobic power taken from a previous VO2max test;
  2. A moderate warm-up consisting of cycling for five minutes at 40% peak aerobic power, followed immediately by 1 minute at 80% of peak aerobic power; and,
  3. A hard warm-up consisting of cycling for five minutes at 40% peak aerobic power, followed immediately by one minute at 110% of peak aerobic power.

After sitting down for 10 minutes after each warm-up, they then did an all-out one minute sprint on the ergo. The researchers measured mean power output in watts during the sprint, oxygen consumption during the sprint, and blood lactate levels before and after the one-minute print.

 The Results

As expected the harder warm-up produced the greatest blood lactates (4.2±0.9 millimoles per litre [mmol/L]) before the one-minute sprint test. However, the blood lactates did not reach the ‘magical’ figure of 5 mmol/L that has been shown to lead to decreased subsequent performance. Crucially, the harder warm-up lead to both reduced lactate levels after the all-out sprint and increased oxygen use during the sprint with no significant differences between warm-up intensities in mean power output (easy  516±28 watts; moderate 521±26 watts; hard 526±34 watts). This sport scientists concluded that a harder warm up-induced a reduction in lactate production and increased oxygen utilization with no change in sprint performance.

 The So What?

 The research team supports other previous research that has showed harder warm-ups are the best way to go for middle distance and short-endurance events (3-10 minutes) that are hard from the word go. So if you know you are doing an event like this, or that the running crew take off hard or the cycling bunch is going to take off hard such as in a handicap race or a hill start event, hit the pool, road or ergo and get warmed-up hard but not to the point of lactate build-up in the legs. For more on the importance of warm-up for older athletes, see Chapters 5, 6 and 12 of my book The Masters Athlete.

Source: Wittekind, A. & Beneke, R. (2011). Metabolic and performance effects of warm-up intensity on sprint cycling. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 21(6): e201-e207.