Update your warm up approach to training and competition

Warming up with a dynamic, focused routine, specifically tailored to your chosen sport.

Warming upIt 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.

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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.

  • Lunge walk – for loosening up the hips, improving leg drive and strengthening the butt and hamstrings. Assume a lunge position and step forwards into another lunge. Keep your chest up, look straight ahead and co-ordinate your arms with your legs;
  • High knee lift – for hip flexor and ankle strength. Extend up onto the toes and lift each thigh to a position parallel with the ground as you move forwards;
  • Elbow-to-inside-of-ankle lunge – for hip flexibility, hamstring strength and stretching out the lower back. Similar to the lunge walk, but extend your trunk forwards over your front leg. If your right leg was in front of you, you would take the right elbow down toward the inside of the right ankle. Watch your balance!
  • Calf walk – for lower limb strength and achilles flexibility. Extending the ankle on each step will warm up the calf muscles and achilles tendons;
  • Sideways and backwards skipping/running – for lower limb strength, agility and flexibility.

Other useful warm-up exercises include:

  • Simulated running arm action, standing or seated. The seated version is also great for specific core stability, as you have to work hard to maintain stability on the ground. Perform for 15-60 seconds, altering your speed of movement;
  • Leg drives. Lean forwards against a wall, with your hands out at shoulder level and your feet shoulder-width apart and approximately a metre from the wall. Look straight ahead and keep your body straight. Lift your right leg, with the knee bent, until the upper thigh is parallel to the ground. From your hip, drive the leg back, so that your forefoot contacts the ground, then pull the leg back up to the starting position to complete one rep. Perform in sets of 10 on each leg, gradually increasing the speed of the drive;
  • Leg cycling. Assume the same starting position as for the exercise above, but this time, on driving the leg back, sweep it back up and behind you before pulling it back from the hip to the starting position. Try to keep the foot dorsi-flexed – ie stretched towards the leg. Perform this exercise slowly at first, gradually building up speed as you become more confident.

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.

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Why adopt a different approach?

Here, then, in summary is why adopting a different approach to warming up could improve your sports performance:

  1. You’ll save time and free up more specific training hours. If you were training five times a week for 250 days a year, warming up and stretching in the traditional manner for 30 minutes at a time would take up a total of 125 hours. That is virtually five days of continuous training time that could be put to much more specific use;
  2. The time spent specifically warming up will also improve your running action and specifically strengthen and stretch your running muscles, so boosting your performance. The lower leg is fundamental to running performance, and many of the drills described opposite will strengthen this region and so, in turn, do wonders for your power generation and force return;
  3. You’ll be better prepared mentally. A slow warm-up with a sustained period of stretching can switch your mind away from the dynamics of the task ahead. This may be particularly detrimental before a race or competition, when you’ll want to maintain your focus and stay sharp. On a subtler level, your neuromuscular system may not be optimally prepared if you pursue a slower style of warm-up with lots of stretching. The more focused approach will heighten the ability of your muscles to contract;
  4. Over-stretching your connective tissue can impair running efficiency and dynamic sports performance. If a runner becomes too flexible, perhaps in the hip and upper thigh region, energy can be wasted through inefficient leg drive and knee pick-up. And these negative effects become more pronounced the faster you run;
  5. Other research has indicated that the shine is knocked off dynamic activity by too much preparatory passive stretching in the warm-up. Runners’ legs need to be ‘hard’, energy-efficient, force-returning appliances, not spongy, over-absorbent ones. Too much stretching and too great a range of movement can be a bad thing. Recent research indicates that plyometric training for distance runners will develop this energy-efficiency, but so, too, will a more specific warm-up;
  6. Hyper-mobile joints can also make you more injury prone, particularly in impact sports.

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.

John Shepherd

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