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  Latest update: 8/10/2022

Before/After a Ride - Stretching, Warming Up, Massage

Warming Up

Does a warmup make a difference? Will it improve performance or decrease the chances of an injury?


A 2010 review hinted that performance improvements were seen after warming up, and there was no evidence that warming-up was detrimental. This comment from a 2015 review: "....warm-up strategies have continued to develop largely on a trial-and-error basis, utilizing coach and athlete experiences rather than scientific evidence..." implied enough of a benefit to be integrated into training programs by professional sports teams. This recent blog was even more upbeat on the value of warming up in competitive maximal muscle power or high-intensity events.

Why would a warm up improve performance? When we start our exercise, cell energy metabolism ramps up to provide the ATP needed to power muscle contractions. Heat, a byproduct of this metabolic cycle warms the local muscle cells before beginning to increase the temperature of other body tissues (ligaments, joints). After a time, our core temperature starts to rise. Sweating and the diversion of blood to the skin combine to dissipate this metabolic byproduct and keep us from overheating.

This initial warming of the muscle increases local blood flow and decreases stiffness. Spinning engages idle nerve/muscle units which are then prepared to respond when more power is needed. The increased blood flow through the muscles gets the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems ready to meet the increased oxygen needs of the exercising muscles.

Finally there is the psychological benefit of feeling more relaxed and in control, being more tuned-in to feedback on muscle fatigue and how much reserve you might have to push the envelope in a competitive event.

Generally speaking, a warm-up is more important before maximal muscle power or high-intensity events. It should be longer (in duration) the shorter and more intense the event and conversely shorter or less intense as the length of the event increases (to avoid overusing energy stores in the muscles). Timing of a warmup is also important. For a sprint event the warmup should immediately precede the sprint to optimize the muscle being at the optimal temperature (as we know a warm muscle can produce more power and don?t want to loose even a little edge). The blog summarizes specific warm up recommendations for different events - sprint, time trials of less than 60 minutes, and events of more than 60 minutes.

"Priming" is a specific warm up technique to optimize for power. It requires adding a bout of intense exercise (interval for example) in the warm up session. The "prime" must increase the blood lactate level, and if done correctly will lead to activation of additional muscle fibers at the start of the next bout of intense exercise (the competitive event). It can improve performance by 2-3% (A seven second improvement in a 4,000m pursuit.)

For the average recreational athlete riding endurance level events, it is debatable whether a warm-up is even necessary for events lasting several hours. But a warmup still has benefits, an opportunity to spin the legs and get into the riding mindset. It is as much about psychological preparation as it is about physiological benefit."

My translation? You can warm up on the bike. For me this is 7 or 8 miles or 15 minutes of a slower pace. But if you are preparing for a race or competitive event, I'd highly recommend reading the entire article.


Exercise is associated with microscopic injury to muscle tissue and the more vigorous the activity, especially if it exceeds your level of training, the greater that injury. This injury occurs in muscles which are actively contracting (your quads for example) as well as in muscles being held in a constant state of contraction (isometric) for long periods of time (such as your shoulder muscles and abdominal muscles on a long ride). This microscopic muscle injury, along with the byproducts from anaerobic metabolism are two important factors in the development of sore muscles after a vigorous workout or competition.

The microtrauma is associated tissue swelling (edema) and an influx of inflammatory cells. Later, in the healing phase, scar tissue can form in the body of the muscle. During the initial inflammatory phase the muscle often responds with a reflex spasm often described as a tightness or knot.

Does warming up decrease the risk of injury? A search of the literature failed to provide a definitive answer. Many articles conclude there is a "possible benefit" but with no hard data. We know that stretching BEFORE a run, for example, increases the risk of injury much more than no stretching. But stretching after 10 or 15 minutes of a sport specific warmup (see below) in all likelihood at least does no harm.


When massaging a muscle, two approaches can be used. First is to apply pressure on the area of discomfort (the palpable knot) with the muscle in a neutral, relaxed position. The pressure is then moved along the direction of the muscle fibers (remember to massage in the direction of the muscle fibers - the direction of pull of the muscle) to counteract the spasm and "work out" the pain. This is particularly effective when combined with active expiration (breathing out) which also helps to dampen the neural spasm reflex. Active massage involves applying steady pressure to the tender area or muscle, and the extremity is actively put through it's range of motion, contracting and moving the muscle beneath the point of pressure. The theory being that this involves the nerve/muscle unit and may retrain the entire motor unit to sustain a decrease in spasm after the massage session has been completed.


Stretching after exercise, and massage (where someone else is stretching the muscle in question for you), can decrease the muscle spasm and minimize edema and subsequent fibrous tissue formation. Sports massage (as opposed to deep tissue and other forms of massage) can be an important adjunct to a rigorous training program. For cyclists, the most common muscles requiring post exercise stretching or massage are the hamstrings, quadriceps, and shoulder muscles. As an inflamed muscle, or one in spasm, is uncomfortable to pressure, it is easy for you to identify your own areas of overuse.

In 2016 the New York Times published a nice summary of the current thoughts on stretching. There are 2 types of stretching. Static stretching is holding a steady stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Although it had been taught for years that static stretching (after a warm up) decreased injuries and thus improved performance, it actually decreases the force of the subsequent muscle contraction for up to 30 minutes.

Dynamic stretching refers to a stretch of the muscle while it is moving and only requires holding the stretch for several seconds. It increases flexibility/range of motion as well as the power of contraction. Dynamic stretching is sport specific. Here are several bicycling specific examples: (1 and 2).

It is important to stretch only after the muscle to be stretched has been actively warmed up - either with 5 or 10 minutes of exercise (or in the post exercise period). This increases blood flow and actually physically warms the muscle tissue itself. The warmup increases tissue elasticity and reduces the frequency of injuries directly related to the stretching itself. It doesn't have to be a vigorous warm up - maybe 40 - 50% of your aerobic maximum.

We know that static stretching does not decrease injury rates (in fact, if done incorrectly static stretching increases the injury rate compared to no stretching), but there have been several studies demonstrating a decreased injury rates after a program of dynamic testing. (Here is one). For those of you interested in additional web material on stretching, Liam Keever has put together a comprehensive site with a detailed stretching program at Bodymind Resources.

Here are 2 different opinions, well presented.

PRO from

CON from Dr. So what is one to believe?? Dr. Mirkin's position is based on the science and Coach Hughes on personal reports from his clients. In the end, incorporating stretching into your training is a personal decision. If you feel more comfortable (even if it is a placebo effect) you will be more likely to train more regularly and be more optimistic in competition (or on a friendly Saturday ride with buddies).

And if you decide it doesn't fit in your training program there is no evidence you are short changing yourself on the performance side.


It's not unusual to see someone sitting around in camp with a wooden or foam roller, working on their quads and hamstrings. Does it work? This recent review from pulls together the most recent scientific evidence. Below are selected quotes from that article.

The theory:

The facts:

Bottom line? If decreasing muscle discomfort is your goal, then rolling is worth the time. But to improve performance? NO

And for a few more ideas on rolling, a nice regimen.


Stiffness (or tightness) in a muscle is probably related to some mild "spasm" in the muscle fibers - along with edema or swelling from microtrauma. But when you get a muscle cramp you are seeing spasm at its finest. There is not any single cause of the spontaneous contraction, or cramp, but there are several common scenarios including exercising at a level greater than your training, and water and electrolyte imbalances. Here is more detail on muscle cramps and additional thoughts on treatment.

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

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