The power of warm-ups: maximise your potential

Previous research (reported here in Peak Performance) has shown that including some very high-intensity resistance exercises such as high-load leg presses in a warm up procedure before a subsequent 20km time trial, can produce a dramatic increase in cycling performance. How is this so? Well, the most likely answer lies in something known as ‘post-activation muscle potentiation’, which is a well-established phenomenon in sport. Post-activation potentiation occurs in fast twitch (high power) muscle fibres, and its main effect is to enhance muscle force at sub-maximal activation levels for a short duration of time following previous intense muscle activation.

But while the science of post-activation potentiation (PAP) is sound, the problem for most would-be cyclists about to embark on a time trial is that stumbling across a leg-press machine or barbell and squat rack at the start line of a race is highly unlikely! With that in mind, researchers have explored whether a more practical cycling-specific warm up applying the same principles could be an effective alternative – and the results make for interesting reading.

PAP: the best way to warm up?

In a fascinating study, a team of British researchers from the University of Chester looked at whether they could induce PAP in the cycling muscles, not by using weight training loading, but instead by using some short but high-intensity bursts on the bike during a warm up procedure [J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Mar 25. doi: 10.1519/ JSC.0000000000001908]. To do this, ten well-trained male endurance cyclists (an aerobic capacity [VO2max] of around 65mls/kg/min) performed two 4km cycling time trials on two separate occasions. However, the warm up procedure used before each time trial differed:

  • Before one time trial, the cyclists simply pedalled for 6.5 minutes at a constant intensity of 60% of their VO2max – ie a low-to-moderate intensity.
  • Before the other time trial, they pedalled for 5 minutes at 60% VO2max but then added 3 x 10-second bursts at 70% of peak power (very intense) interspersed with 30-seconds recovery after each burst.

As well as measuring the cyclists’ 4km time trial times for each warm-up condition, the researchers also looked at the cyclists’ blood lactate concentrations and their power outputs over each 500m split.

The findings

The key finding was that when the cyclists performed the PAP-inducing warm up containing the three high-intensity 10-second bursts, they completed the time trial significantly faster knocking just under two seconds off and averaging five extra watts of power. These performance benefits were particularly evident during the first 1500m of the time trial, which led the researchers to conclude that this kind of warm-up protocol can indeed produce a PAP effect, which can enhance cycling performance. [Epub ahead of print]

Peak Performance verdict

This is not the first study to show that PAP can help endurance performance. As we mentioned above, the use of leg press exercises ten minutes before a time trial has been shown to produce performance gains of 6% in a 20km time trial1. Also, studies have shown that harnessing post-activation potentiation can be helpful to other athletes such as sprinters2. What is different about this study are the practical implications; any cyclist can turn up at the start line of a time trial and apply this technique – not just elite cyclists awaiting to head out onto the track. More research is needed – for example, the best combination of burst intensity, length and recovery interval – but for now at least 3 x 10 seconds seems a good place to start. In the meantime, try the suggestions below and watch out for a forthcoming in-depth article on this topic.


Practical suggestions

  • For a PAP-inducing warm up, try adding three 10-second bursts in your warm up routine.
  • Start with five minutes at low to moderate intensity pedalling then add in the bursts.
  • Ensure the bursts are performed at the end of the warm up and that no longer than ten minutes elapses between the end of your warm up and the start of the time trial or race (as the PAP effects will fade after this time).
  • Use a relatively high gear for your bursts – this will increase the force and involvement of fast-twitch muscle fibres in your legs, which will enhance the PAP effects.

See also:

References

  1. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Sep;28(9):2513-20
  2. J Sports Sci. 2013;31(10):1117-24
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