The run-down on your warm-up

What’s the best warm-up routine to improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury?  Don’t know the answer?  Don’t worry, you’re not alone!  A web search for “stretching” yields 91 million results, all with different opinions and suggestions.  Change the topic to “warm up” and you’ll find yourself scrolling through 120 million results!  Obviously, there is a lot of debate on this topic, but let’s simplify it so you can get to the good stuff – your work out!   

First, a review of stretching techniques:

  • Static stretches are performed at rest and held for 30 seconds to 2 minutes to achieve muscle lengthening.
  • Dynamic stretches are performed while moving and held for short durations.  This active movement utilizing momentum prepares the body for sports performance.
  • Ballistic stretches are performed at rest and involve fast “bouncing” movements at the end range of movement.  This aggressive form of stretching can lead to muscle and nerve damage and can even tear tissue off the bone, thus it is not recommended.

What does the research show about stretching?

Recent research concludes that passive, static stretching can result in an acute loss of strength and power as tested in sprinters and soccer players.  This loss of power results in decreased sports performance (particularly sprinting, jumping, and agility tasks) and possible increased risk of injury.  Dynamic stretching is the recommended warm-up for this athletic population as it actively increases blood flow to muscles in a functional pattern of movement without impairing performance.  Strong evidence demonstrates that dynamic and static stretching prior to low-intensity sports, such as running, cycling, and swimming, has no beneficial effect on injury prevention or performance.  However, less-flexible individuals have shown a lower rate of oxygen consumption while covering the same distance at the same speed as their more flexible cohorts.  Thus, static stretching used in a separate training session can provide health related range of motion benefits.

Stretching is a new subject of interest for researchers, thus additional, more comprehensive studies are needed in the future to clarify the best “stretching prescription”.

What does this mean for you?

Before the workout:  If you are participating in a low-intensity, endurance sport, such as running, cycling, and swimming, neither static nor dynamic stretches in your warm-up will have an affect on injury prevention or performance.  However, dynamic stretches performed prior to your strength training or speed work session can help to warm up the muscles and improve joint range of motion.

The workout:  Start slow for the first 10% of your run, bike, or swim and steadily ramp up.  This tactic allows your muscles to warm up so you can go the distance without wasting time and energy stretching.

Race day:  Your warm-up on race day will depend on the distance of your race.  In general, the shorter the race, the longer the warm-up will be.  Thus, for a 5K, you might spend 20-30 minutes lightly jogging.  For a Half Marathon, you might spend just 10 minutes lightly jogging.  After and during your jogging warm-up, you can incorporate some light dynamic stretches, including straight leg kicks, butt kicks, and gentle lunges.  These recommendations are also applied to swimming and biking.  Ever see the Tour de France?  Cyclists spin on their bikes prior to biking over 100 miles a day!  It really helps!

After the workout and/or race:  Static stretches are recommended and beneficial. These stretches are performed at rest and held for 30 seconds to 2 minutes for 3 to 4 sets each.

On your off day:  Consider adding a yoga or Pilates class to your routine to improve flexibility and core strength.  Remember, cross-training should include stretching and strengthening, and is crucial to avoid overuse injuries and enhance your sports performance.

All warm-ups and stretches should be painfree – listen to your body and don’t push beyond your comfort zone!  Seek advice from your physical therapist, trainer, or running coach for an individualized program tailored to your fitness goals.

Now that you have the necessary tools to achieve an efficient and effective warm-up, have fun and enjoy that workout!

Check out the video below demonstrating upper and lower body dynamic warm up exercises:

References:

Behm DG, Chaouachi A.  A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Mar 4.

Curry BS, Chengkalath D, Crouch GJ, Romance M, Manns PJ.  Acute effects of dynamic stretching, static stretching, and light aerobic activity on muscular performance in women.  J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1811-9.

Jenkins J, Beazell J.  Flexibility for runners.  Clin Sports Med.  2010 Jul;29(3):365-77.

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