Warming Up for 'Cross

By Chris Bagg

Cyclocross season is certainly here, with almost a month of racing past already. Oregon and Washington seem to get started earlier and earlier each year, and the team I run and race for during 'cross season went out to our first race back on August 31st. Since then we've been out every weekend, with far more racers toeing the start line than I dreamed of, back when I told my supervisor at the store that I thought a cyclocross team was a good idea (first side note of this post: how many times have you seen "towing the line" replace the correct "toeing the line" in recent months and years? To where is the line being towed, and what for?). One thing I've noticed at the 'cross races is a real lack of understanding as to what makes a proper warm-up for the demands of a cyclocross race. I know, I know, most of the people who race are in their off-seasons, and they may not want or need their 'cross races to have the structure of the rest of the year. Still, I find that athletes like to have success no matter what time of year it is, and it's with that in mind that I'm posting how to warm up so you'll feel your best when you start your next cyclocross race.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Cooper Photography

'Cross races demand some odd things, aerobically and anaerobically. In road races the start is usually somewhat laconic, allowing a racer to work his way up to speed as the race progresses. Attacks animate the early going, but there's little need for all-out efforts right away (for most in the peloton). Then the race builds in intensity, with mountaintop finishes, climbs, or sprints making the second half (or final seconds!) much more difficult than the first half. Cyclocross is different. As someone more eloquent than I once said, "in 'cross you get to eat your dessert first," meaning that the very first thing you do is an all-out ten second sprint, right from the line. That sprint will regularly be as high as 200% of your threshold power or even higher. Being able to make the front pack of a cyclocross race is often the difference between having a good race and a sub-par one. And being ready for such an effort right at the beginning of your race means that your warm-up needs to be thorough and include some higher intensity efforts.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Cooper Photography

But once you've made the front pack, you're still facing 40 to 60 minutes of riding slightly above or slightly below your functional threshold power. My friend and cyclocross confidante, Tyson Parody (not a fake name), used to claim that racing on unwarmed legs felt like being poisoned by a cobra. I don't know if he ever experienced the latter, but I think I know what he means: that heavy, gaspy sensation of fatigue. You'll get it if you do a hard workout and then try to run up a flight of stairs the next day-maybe that's what a nasty snakebite feels like. Anyway...you'll have to do some of your warm-up right at threshold power, too, to wake up that part of your aerobic engine.

Lastly, I see people starting their warm-up far too late: you should warm-up just about as long as your race will be, and you should be finishing your warm-up ten minutes before the race begins, which will give you time to get to the start line, change your base layer (don't race with a damp base layer!), claim your call-up, and dominate the day.

'CROSS WARMUP PROTOCOL (for a 60 minute race)

  • 25 minutes easy pedaling with a high cadence: 95-100 rpm
  • 5 minutes at 88-93% of functional threshold power (FTP), or 6.5 on a scale of 1-10
  • 5 minutes easy pedaling high cadence (95-100 rpm)
  • 3x(2 minutes @ 98-103% of FTP or 7-7.5 on a scale of 1-10, 3 minutes easy pedaling)
  • 3x(10" maximal efforts >200% of FTP, 1:50 recoveries)
  • 4' easy pedaling to finish out the hour and get to the start line!


'CROSS WARMUP PROTOCOL (for a 45-minute race)

  • 15' easy pedaling with a high cadence
  • 5' @ 88-93% of FTP and high cadence
  • 5' easy pedaling
  • 2x(2' @ 98-103% of FTP, 3' easy pedaling)
  • 3x(10" maximal efforts >200% of FTP, 1:50 recoveries)
  • 4-9' easy pedaling to get you to 40-45 minutes of total warm-up


Chris Bagg discovered cyclocross too late, after he'd already become a professional triathlete. He slogged around the New England 'cross scene for a few seasons before moving to Oregon because of Brian Vernor's cyclocross film Pure Sweet Hell. He races triathlon until September and then goes back to his true calling. He coaches triathletes, runners, and cyclists, but his favorite clients race 'cross. You can learn more about him at chrisbagg.com.