In my recent blog about Posture I mentioned the most common things that we blame for injury; core stability, over-training, not stretching enough, the wrong shoes. One other recurring theme that people come back to is “not warming up properly”. So let us look at what warming up is, if it is as important as we think, why it is important, and how to do it effectively.
What is a warm-up?
Warm-ups are essentially the preparation for physical exertion, carried out by exercising or practising gently beforehand, generally including a combination of cardiovascular exercises, stretching and strength drills. This should gently prepare the body for exercises by gradually increasing the heart rate and circulation; the warm-up is also an opportunity for an individual to prepare themselves mentally, and for a team to work together prior to the start of the game. Warm-ups can also be used to practice skills and team drills. Moreover, one of the aspects of a warm-up is “simply to stir cellular content so the sarcoplasm [part of muscle fibre] becomes liquefied” (Ref 1)
Is it important, and why?
While the influence of warm-up on injury prevention is fairly inconclusive, there is certainly research that suggests that there are no negative effects to (a sport relevant) warm-up, and the psychological impact can be huge – getting your ‘Game Face’ on, as it were.
FIFA released their own recommendation for a football specific warm-up, and research there did suggest that the “…program reduced overall risk and severity of lower extremity injury ” (Ref 2). The British Journal of Sports Medicine also found that the FIFA 11+’ effect was “substantial injury prevention…… reducing football injuries by 39%” (Ref 3).
Similarly, looking at the sport of rugby, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine :-
“… found overall injuries fell by 72% when players completed the newly devised exercise session at least three times a week, either just before a match or before training. Concussion injuries were also reduced by 59%” (Ref 4)
- As an aside, for anyone who follows/plays rugby or football, you will have noticed that teams will go through a specific warm-up on the pitch, before disappearing for 15-20 minutes back into the changing rooms, only to reappear and start playing. I have always questioned this model and personally feel that a far better approach would be to start the warm-up 15-20 minutes later and gradually build the warm-up intensity up to the beginning of the match – and so starting at full speed. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the current model other than those most dangerous of words; we’ve always done it that way. I believe that it would only take one team to take a different approach and we would see everyone following suit. I’d be interested in opinions from team coaches.
How to warm-up
To start with, I think we should acknowledge that old cliché of no one size fitting all. This goes for both person, and sport/activity. No one warm-up will suit everybody and every sport, and so we have to keep things relevant, and sport specific. Would a rugby player and a gymnast benefit from the same routine? We need to understand the demands of your chosen activity to fully understand the requirements of your warm-up.
For runners that I work with, everything is dynamic – there is no static stretching. Research consistently tells us that “…the Static Stretching of the lower limbs and hip muscles had a NEGATIVE effect on explosive performances for up to 24 hours post-stretching …. Conversely, the Dynamic Stretching of the same muscle groups are highly recommended 24 hours before performing” (Ref 4) and that “static stretching for 30 seconds neither improves nor reduces muscular performance and that dynamic stretching enhances muscular performance” (Ref 5). Running – like most sport- is a dynamic activity, reliant on elastic recoil of muscles. Stretching them, and potentially dampening that ability to recoil, prior to setting off makes no sense. The dynamic movements should work through the range of motion required for the activity, and so slow running is a great warm-up for fast running, and many runners will use mile/km 1 as theirs.
Gymnasts, dancers, divers, however – activities that rely on increased flexibility – may well benefit from static stretching as part of a structured warm-up. Horses for courses. Know your sport; understand the requirements; reverse engineer your warm-up.
So warming up is a good idea, but the key thing is always, always, always specificity of task. The best warm-ups – in my humble opinion – are the ones that most closely replicate the upcoming task, at a much lower intensity than required for said task.
How does your running club/rugby club/football team warm-up? Does it fit the research? If not, maybe get them to have a read of this blog; I’d be interested in opinions.
- Basics of Strength & Conditioning, NSCA, p.15
As part of my Strength & Conditioning for Runners Workshops, I provide my one-stop warm-up for runners. To find out more, please see here
N.B. There are no ‘one size fits all’ style quick fixes in most injury scenarios, so these article shouldn’t be seen as such. They are merely guides to a better understanding of how our bodies work.