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It is a common human failing to look very hard – maybe too hard – at something and still fail to see what’s staring you in the face. This may explain why coaches and athletes have continued to keep faith with the old-style warm-up despite mounting evidence that it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.
It’s a given that we need to warm up before we sprint, hit a tennis ball or attempt a clean and jerk. The process prepares us mentally and physically for the task ahead. Traditionally, athletes from most sports have been used to raising their body temperature with 5-15 minutes of gentle cardiovascular (CV) work and then stretching off. As a long jump athlete, I can remember jogging a couple of laps to get really warm, then sitting and chatting for the next half an hour while supposedly stretching. By the time the session started, I’d often be cold both physically and mentally. My body would have switched off and I would be far from optimally prepared for the dynamic activity to follow; in fact I would literally have to warm up all over again.
Stretching was a major component of the ‘old’ warm-up, with coaches constantly reminding me that my range of movement had to be improved. But, with hindsight, the impact on my long jump performance of being able to do the box splits or clutch one hand to the other behind my back seems negligible.
The ‘new’ theory about warm-ups is that we should replace the old generalist approach with a much more dynamic, focused routine, specifically tailored to our chosen sport. The various drills we employ need to warm up our muscles specifically for the movements that will be required of them in the activity to follow. In this way specific neuromuscular patterning will be switched on and specific, functional range of movement developed.
It seems obvious, yet for some this is an almost revelatory concept. Former national track and field coach Tom McNab spoke at a recent PP meeting of the challenge that will need to be faced by coaches up and down the country, many of whom will have to turn their old ideas on their heads. Athletes, too, will need convincing to throw out the old concepts about warm-ups and usher in the new.
But, in fact, the dynamic, focused warm-up is not as new a concept as it appears. Athletes from the former Soviet Bloc were using these types of warm-ups as far back as the 1970s – decades before they came to mainstream attention in the West. I remember attending a training course with former long jump world record-holder and (at the time) head Soviet coach Igor Ter-Ovanesian in the early 80s, and being put through a short, sharp warm-up, comprising star-jumps and various agility moves. On receiving the instruction to warm up, all athletes attending the course had begun by plodding round the track, only to be called back by an exasperated Ter-Ovanesian and instructed in the ‘new way’. Yet so entrenched were our ideas – and those of our coaches – on warming up that we failed to take this lesson to heart.
How, then, should we warm up? The following guidance will work for runners and players of running-based sport, who need to be flexible enough to run efficiently in terms of power, relaxation and injury avoidance and (in running-based sports) to make quick changes of direction. For such athletes, specific range of movement will be required in the shoulders, lower back, hips, hamstrings, quads, calf muscles and achilles tendons. But preparing these areas for dynamic activity does not require lengthy periods of passive stretching.
First, raise your body temperature with 5-10 minutes of gentle CV work. Slow-paced running is, after all, a very specific way to warm up your muscles for faster-paced efforts, and there is still a need to prepare the CV system for more strenuous exertions. It is possible to incorporate many of the moves described below into a type of seamless warm-up – ie by interspersing them with periods of jogging. But it is probably best to move gradually towards this goal over time – especially if you have always used the traditional, more staid, warm-up approach.
You can increase the speed component of many of the drills as you become more proficient at performing them. This will ‘fire up’ your nervous system and increase the strength of your muscles for handling more dynamic contractions.
Performing these drills can also reduce the risk of common running injuries, such as shin splints, and can ‘protect’ the knee and ankle joints. Always think about being ‘light’ on your feet.
Aim to perform each of the exercises below over 10-15m, with a walk back or jogging recovery. It should be enough to perform 3-4 reps of each.
Other useful warm-up exercises include:
A final thought is – don’t wear shoes! No, I’m not recommending that you complete your next lactate stacker session in your socks; but, if weather permits (or you’re training indoors), performing the drills described above over very short distances without shoes can be very beneficial. Running shoes prevent the calf and Achilles tendons, in particular, from optimally flexing. They also reduce the potential to specifically strengthen these areas. Increasing foot and lower leg strength can make you a more efficient runner.
Here, then, in summary is why adopting a different approach to warming up could improve your sports performance:
Having said all this, there are times when ‘old school’ stretching is okay.
Despite the marginalisation of stretching in the new dynamic warm-up, active, passive and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching still have a very important role to play in an overall training plan. If you recognise that limitations in your current range of movement are hampering the performance of your sport, you can use these methods to develop the range of movement you require. You should do this periodically, in any case, to reduce muscle shortening and the potential build-up of muscle tightness. Note, however, that this is best done in separate sessions, away from your sport-specific workouts.