I remember many years ago when I’d only just started getting into running, waiting to start a 5k fun run (some would argue that’s an oxymoron right there!) and watching many of the competitors jogging around and kicking their heels to their bum.
I can remember clearly thinking ‘blimey if I do a warm up I won’t have enough energy for the run’.
How naïve I was.
I now know of course that not warming up was a big mistake.
Before I go into the how, let’s look at the why.
THE IMPORTANCE OF WARMING UP PROPERLY
The main reason we warm up is in order to prepare the body for the extra workload to come. This in turn can improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.
You wouldn’t start a cold car and hammer the throttle to the floor without giving the engine a bit of a chance to warm up first. It just wouldn’t do the car any good at all.
The same applies to your body. There are a number of physiological changes that need to take place to ensure that the body is going to perform well and cope with the added stress that any kind of exercise produces.
These physiological changes include a gradual rise in the heart rate. As the HR increases the amount of oxygen that the body takes in increases too. This oxygen is going to be required for the increased workload you’re about to place on your body.
It also allows the body to feel warmer.
Warm muscles work better. They become more pliable. Imagine a piece of sticky tac. When it’s cold it’s brittle and snaps when you try to stretch it. But, warm it up between your fingers and it becomes softer and you can pull it apart and it doesn’t snap. You’re muscles work in a very similar way.
Warming up allows the fluid around the joints, known as synovial fluid, to become less viscous. This time imagine a jar of golden syrup. When the syrup is cold it’s hard to move a spoon through it. It feels thick and it resists the spoon. But if you warm it up it becomes much runnier, it pours easily and the spoon glides through it. Just the same as what happens in your joints.
By warming up you give the brain time to catch up with what the body is going to be doing. Have you ever called someone on the phone and you have to ask them to repeat who’s calling? That’s because it takes the brain a second or two to catch up and in that time you’ve missed the person’s name. Doing warm up exercises that mimic the main workout allows the neural pathways to prepare for the work to come.
So now you know why we warm up let’s look at how?
WHAT SHOULD A GOOD WARM UP INCLUDE
There are 3 elements that should always be included in any warm up.
Mobility, Elevation and Stretch.
Mobility is about taking the joints through a gentle, rhythmic full range of movement. Starting small and building up to their full range this could include movements such as shoulder shrugs, building to shoulder circles, through to elbow circles through to full arm circles and then reversing the circles.
The warm up should aim to mobilise all the major joints, including the spine. Spinal rotations and lateral flexion are a definite, but also making sure to focus on the less obvious joints such as wrists, ankles, neck and fingers. The movements should directly relate to the work to come, especially where this is sport specific.
The warm up needs to elevate the HR and the core temperature. The process of mobilising the joints will provide some level of elevation but the aim here is to raise the HR to approximately 40-60% of maximum.
The less fit you are, the more gradual the elevation should be, also the colder the ambient temperature, the longer it should take to get there.
The best way to start to raise the HR is by gradually increasing the intensity of the movement. So things like half squats, half lunges, side lunges – big, compound movements that use a number of muscles and joints at the same time work best.
Including higher impact movements such as marching through to jogging, skipping and jumping and combining arm movements with leg movements means the body requires more oxygen and will help to gradually raise the HR.
The trick is to make sure that the HR isn’t elevated too quickly. The warm up should leaving you feeling raring to go, not exhausted before you even get started.
There is some conjecture about whether or not you should stretch prior to exercise. Static stretching (where you hold a stretch in one place for a set amount of time) can cause the HR to drop which is not what you’re aiming for. Instead, adding what’s known as ‘dynamic’ stretching into the warm up can be beneficial to performance. Dynamic stretches combine a stretch with an action, so for example a lunge with an upper body twist would be a dynamic stretch. Things like leg swings, walk outs with a twist or a press up, lunge walks, frog walks etc are all great dynamic stretches.
It’s important that you raise you HR again after stretching – sometimes called a second pulse raiser – to ensure that you get back to that 40-60% of max before you go into the main exercise session.
One final word on stretching – remember the sticky tac analogy above? Make sure you do the mobility and elevation work first before stretching. Never stretch a cold muscle – it’ll end in tears (both meanings of the word!!)
Although not essential, if you have time and the equipment, spending a few minutes using a foam roller before your main workout will help to break down any tightness in the soft tissues. This deep tissue work helps to break down any scar tissue (or adhesions) which helps improve blood and lymph flow by applying deep pressure to the muscle.
Foam rolling is effective and will leave you feeling much better. But be warned, it’s not a comfortable experience!!
So how long should you spend warming up?
There is no specific length of time prescribed for the warm up but somewhere between 5-15 minutes is probably sufficient.
For sport specific warmups it may be between 20-30 minutes.
In general about 5 minutes for the mobility and elevation and about 5 minutes for the dynamic stretches is probably sufficient. If you’re adding in foam rollering maybe an extra 5-10 minutes.
As mentioned earlier, if you’re not very fit yet, you might want to spend a bit longer on the warm up.
If the weather or ambient temperature is very cold your warm up will take longer and should be more gradual. If on the other hand it’s already pretty warm, you may be able to shorten the warm up accordingly.
THE TAKE AWAY
The take away from this article is that you should definitely not underestimate the importance of taking the time to warm up properly.
Make it an integral part of your workout and don’t skimp. A good warm up will improve performance and help you to hit those PBs.
It’ll reduce your risk of injury and ensure that you can remain consistent with your exercise regimen.
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Bev Thorogood is a Level 3 Qualified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Coach and owner of Floresco Fitness and Fatloss Coaching.