Shortening "warm up" time for running and cycling
August 1, 2016 8:10 AM   Subscribe

On a long bike ride a few weeks ago, my husband made an offhand comment that whenever I tell him I think it'll be a short ride/run/hike right after starting out, he ignores it because I always seem to catch a second wind right at 45 minutes and then I am ready to continue on with intense exercise for several more hours. I've started paying attention during my workouts and he's totally right. Those first 45 minutes really suck, though. Is there any way to train my body to shorten this "warm up" time?

Before I hit the 45 minute mark, I often feel like my energy is low and my legs are sore, even if I've had a very solid number of rest days (up to a week). I also tend to feel like my threshold for running out of breath is lower - if I push the intensity just a little bit my heart rate will jump up quickly and I'll start breathing pretty hard. After 45 minutes, it's like a switch flips - I tend to feel GREAT and like my energy level is no longer a barrier. If I'm biking, I regularly go a solid 5 hours, and if I'm running, I'll stop after 1.5 or 2 hours only because I'm worried about injuring myself from running too many miles.

I'm really interested in understanding both in what is going of physiologically for the first 45 minutes vs. later (beyond a hand-wavy "you're just warming up"), and whether it's possible to shorten that initial, much-less-pleasant time. I've tried to do some searching but I think I'm missing the correct terminology, since all I get are spammy links and irrelevant blog posts. Thanks, wise exercising mefites!
posted by iminurmefi to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have this exact phenomenon when swimming, also at the 45 min mark. I've not been able to shorten it, though I haven't consciously tried. Just wanted to chime in to let you know you are not alone in this.
posted by slateyness at 8:14 AM on August 1, 2016

Are you familiar with interval training? Adopting a similar practice (short bursts of high intensity) to your warmup will reduce the time needed to reach warmed-up state.
posted by wutangclan at 8:17 AM on August 1, 2016

Eat a banana first...the potassium helps.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:21 AM on August 1, 2016

I've had good luck with giving myself a short rest period in the first part of a workout before continuing. Something like: run for 5 mins, walk for 3-5 mins, run for the rest of the workout. That gives me the second wind right when I resume running, and it doesn't really go away. You could experiment with adding a second rest period too.
posted by danceswithlight at 8:28 AM on August 1, 2016

Did you read the wikipedia article for "second wind?" It has some possible explanations. I sometimes feel this way if I haven't eaten enough the day before. Maybe you are eating a snack during your ride / run that helps?
posted by beyond_pink at 8:33 AM on August 1, 2016

(As the comment above notes) Wikipedia has several interesting theories about what causes second wind, including changing your metabolism from carbs to proteins and fatty acids, finding the correct balance of oxygen to lactic acid in muscles, and early production of endorphins.
posted by danceswithlight at 8:37 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Maybe you're starting out too fast and getting the second wind as you settle into a comfortable rhythm?
posted by intensitymultiply at 8:55 AM on August 1, 2016

I absolutely experience this, even as a fairly committed cyclist (100 miles a week on average for most of the last few years). Knowing that the "this is gonna suck! you're weak today!" fairy in my brain is lying to me helps -- and being aware of the pattern from cycling has helped me work past it in running, where I'm MUCH less accomplished.

Intervals have helped me shorten it with cycling, but in running I'm mostly just turning up the music and sucking it up ("HTFU") until the switch flips because I know it will.

I'll also say that, the more of this you do, the more sensitive you'll become to nutrition. I can totally tell if I didn't eat enough yesterday, or whatever, and that can turn the problem from "need to get past the warmup and I'm fine" to "whole workout of suck."
posted by uberchet at 9:01 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I get this when swimming, too. It's not really a second wind, because there was no first. Suddenly it feels like my stroke smooths out and I could go on forever. I've thought it was some effect of lack of oxygen... possibly killing off the brain cells that sensibly were telling me to stop before I injure myself.
posted by SandiBeech at 9:03 AM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Those of you suggesting interval training to help get past this (for either running or cycling): can you explain how to do that like I'm five? I am embarrassingly un-educated about training theory for either cycling or running, despite doing a fair amount of it. (I just clip into my road bike and... ride really far, until my butt wants to fall off.) I've heard people use the term "interval training" but I don't really know what it is, or more importantly, how one would do it in order to reduce the time to get to that lovely flow state where you feel like you could go forever.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:25 AM on August 1, 2016

Formal interval training is defined as bursts of very high intensity -- "full gas" -- output interspersed with periods of more moderate output. The people I know who do this in the local cycling community do it on a closed loop in a park, for example, and alternate high-output laps with resting laps for some period of time. The really serious folks are measuring their output with power meters.

I know I said I did intervals, but I don't actuall do any formal interval training. However, two of my weekly rides are through the urban core of my city (Houston) with plenty of stoplights. The fast guys take off and are at 22-23-24mph pretty quickly, and if I want any draft at all, I have to be right there with them, and so I do my best to match them. Once they stabilize at a speed and I fall into a position in the peloton, I can relax a little -- until we stop again. Then the whole game starts over.

And we do this for 25-30 miles 2x a week. Because this is social, too, it's way more fun than solo park intervals, but it's helped me get faster, and it's dramatically increased my confidence in what I know I'm capable of on the bike, which in turn helps me get through that starting period.
posted by uberchet at 10:05 AM on August 1, 2016

I also experience this. For some reason, I can usually push through it more quickly if I ride on an empty stomach (but stay well-hydrated). Not sure of your gender, but I've also noticed that it takes much longer to "break through" in the second half of my menstrual cycle than the first.
posted by xylothek at 10:09 AM on August 1, 2016

Hi, I'm you. I regularly ride the first 45 min/800ft of climbing with my legs feeling uncooperative and molasses-y, to feeling amazing and unstoppable (for a while) after I break the mystery threshold. Things that have noticeably helped:

-STRETCHING. stretching beforehand. quads, calves, hip flexors, butt, a little back and arms. I only stretch for ~3 min max before riding but I feel a HUGE difference when I forget to.
-I've noticed using a foam roller on my quads/IT band before riding helps get legs up to speed too.
-Caffeine/energy thing before riding. A GU or small amount of whatever bar/chew.
-Being properly fueled/hydrated to ride to begin with.
-Something I've been meaning to do (but haven't tried yet) is doing jumping jacks (or something similar) before getting on my bike to kick start the warm up.
-But mostly... trying to be okay that my body does this and really taking my time with the first 45 minutes. I'm an impatient exerciser. I want to be going pretty hard all the time. But taking it down a notch when my body is taking longer than normal to wake up makes the whole ride more pleasant in the long run.
posted by blueberrypuffin at 10:22 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Google HIIT (high intensity interval training)

But the short of it is so short bursts of fast or hard cycling followed by the same amount of time at low intensity. On a bike I'd do a minute on and a minute off for 10 minutes (5 high intensity hits)

I'd do 5-10 minutes of easy riding then 10 minutes of intervals where I'd bang the bike into a hard gear, get up out of the saddle and pound it for 60 seconds.

I have an app on my iphone that can ping me every minute called "seconds" which is pretty good.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:35 AM on August 1, 2016

Elite bike racer here.

To perform well, your muscles need to be loose, relaxed, have blood circulating deep into them. When you're not warmed up, you may be tight, which prevents the blood from circulating, which stops you from working efficiently.

I don't see how intervals will decrease warm-up time. In fact, going hard before you're properly warmed up is a great way to exacerbate the bad sensations.

Some people need longer warmups. I know I do. When I'm racing several days in a row, I like a half-hour cool down after an event, and *multiple* warmups before an event. Sometimes I'm riding 90 minutes, super easy, before I'm ready to go hard. Sometimes, this warmup needs to happen a day before, too.

I don't think your goal should be to figure out how to avoid warmups - it should be to just embrace the need for a warmup, start your rides and runs at an easy tempo, and pick up the pace when you feel good.
posted by entropone at 10:43 AM on August 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

I found that I could completely avoid that initial exhaustion by not eating anything the morning of a planned long (50 mi. +) bicycle trip -- well, except for the half-pint of whole milk I drink with my coffee every morning.

Two things convinced me I was probably burning fat rather than carbohydrates; one was that I heat up a great deal more and more easily when I don't eat anything; and the other was that after a 50 mile ride one day, I stopped at the drug store about 5 miles from my house to buy contact solution, succumbed to the aromas of the candy aisle I had to walk down to get to the contact section in front of the prescription area at the back of the store, and ended up eating a small package of Jolly Rancher watermelon candies as I stood by my bike before I went home. There is a very mild uphill grade from the store to my house, but that was the toughest 5 miles I have ever ridden in 30 years of touring and urban cycling, and it took me more than 30 minutes.
posted by jamjam at 11:10 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here's a pretty great infographic about the basics of HIIT (high intensity interval training).

As far as I can tell, researchers have not figured out the exact mechanism of why HIIT works, and they also haven't figured out "ideal" intervals to use. I've seen a lot of different ones suggested - 20sec/10sec (often called Tabata after the researcher who used them), 30sec/30sec, 1min/1min, etc. The basic idea is to go as hard as you possibly can for as long as you can, then do active rest (e.g. slow cycling instead of stopping completely) for about the same period of time. As a practical matter, how long your "go" interval is depends on the difficulty of the terrain and your overall fitness level, so you might be able to do 1min/1min riding hard on flats but only 30sec/30sec riding hard uphill. As you get better, you'll first be able to add another cycle or two of the same intervals as you've been doing, bringing your total workout time from, say, 6 min to 8 min. Then, as you continue improving, you'll also be able to extend the intervals themselves from, say, 30sec/30sec to 45sec/45sec (this is generally harder).

If you do try HIIT, make sure to drink a lot of water. HIIT makes me incredibly, unbelievably thirsty as compared to other workouts.
posted by danceswithlight at 11:15 AM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I don't see how intervals will decrease warm-up time. In fact, going hard before you're properly warmed up is a great way to exacerbate the bad sensations. "

I don't think OP means (or that anyone is saying) that doing intervals as part of a warmup will get you to the "steady flow" state better or faster; I think they're saying that incorporating intervals in your overall regime may, by increasing your fitness, help you get through the "feeling cold and weak" portion of a long effort faster. Or, at least, that's what *I* meant.

I also can't fathom this "go empty" plan for long bike efforts. Like, that sounds like incredibly bad advice, on the order of "fill your bidons with a mix of raw hamburger and live beetles". For me personally, getting a decent and filling meal in ahead of time is key. I'm a big fan of overnight slow-cooker oatmeal recipe. A bowl of that an hour before the ride -- which is realistically about 90 minutes before tempo really kicks in -- makes for a much better day.
posted by uberchet at 11:58 AM on August 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Another thought: exercise-induced asthma is sometimes mitigated by 20-ish minutes of warm-up before exercise. Perhaps the first 45 min. are serving as that for you.

I've had similar experiences. Sometimes in spring; and those I attribute to the gym. Specifically, at the gym I do cardio for 20-40 minutes, and over the winter, that is my standard exercise length. When I finally get outside, something different happens after my "standard gym workout" length of time has passed, it's like I can finally set free.
posted by Dashy at 1:08 PM on August 1, 2016

Great question, I'm intrigued by the answers.

Back when I was a runner, I had discovered that my body had about 3 breakpoints: about 5 minutes, 10 minutes, and 40 minutes. At each point I had a really strong physical and mental desire to "stop, stop now". It took serious effort to make it through each one, but if I did, I could keep going something effortlessly (until the next).

I also noticed that as my mind was churning through my day's events, if I ever got onto a negative thought loop "Oh, I'm such an idiot, remember the time I did X" - the thought alone could stop me running.

So it's clearly some sort of mental + physical combination for me.

Please share when you find the answer!
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:44 PM on August 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I get this with my spouse and hiking. Like, you could be copying down our conversations word for word. And as mentioned above, I've long suspected I have exercise induced asthma. But now recently, I've also made my spouse slow the hell down for the first 20-30 minutes, because yeah, I can pace him, but I end up miserable doing it. I need an extended warmup period in a way he doesn't, and starting off several hours of exercise at an excruciatingly slow and deliberate pace makes me hate life and exercise and the world so much less.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:47 PM on August 1, 2016

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