Regional Director, USA Sport Group.
Most people who are involved in sport or exercise agree that the warm up and warm down portions of a game, session or work out are important. However, although it is agreed that people should warm up and warm down before and after physical exercise, it is not always known why. It is important for coaches, players and participants to understand why warming up and warming down are so important to ensure sufficient time is spent on both, and that relevant exercises are incorporated.
In simple terms, a warm up is important for two main reasons. The first reason is to improve / increase performance levels, and the second is to avoid injury. Whilst these are valid reasons, it is worth noting that a good warm up does far more than this. A common misconception within the sporting world is that a warm up starts with stretching. Cold muscles and tendons do not stretch very easily and therefore are more prone to tearing if they are cold.
A good warm up should begin with a light exercise that increases the body temperature and increases the blood flow to major muscle groups. This exercise could be light jogging (on the spot or moving), or even using the bicycle to cycle slowly when in the gym. Dynamic stretches should also be performed before static stretching. Dynamic stretches are, in essence, stretching whilst on the move with the aim of propelling muscles to their maximum range of movement. Examples of dynamic stretches are high knees, heel flicks or butt kicks, low lunges, and over the fence. Exercises such as these are more realistic to how muscles stretch during exercise as the muscles stretch whilst on the move. It is uncommon within most forms of exercise that muscles are stretched from a static start. Therefore, dynamic stretching is a vital part of any effective warm up. Static stretching can be used at the end of a warm up, although recent scientific studies have shown that static stretching does little to increase flexibility, blood flow or to help the body avoid injury. The length of time for an effective warm up depends on a number of factors including the age of the person(s) involved, their fitness level and the type of the activity to be performed. A common rule that is used within the sporting world is that a warm up should last a minimum of ten minutes.
One reason for warming up that is often overlooked is the psychological benefits a warm up can have. Within the professional world of sport, a warm up can raise motivation and lower anxiety by allowing players or athletes to get used to their environment, e.g. the noise of the crowd within a stadium. In team sports, warming up together allows players the opportunity to feel like part of a team, hence improving team cohesion and identity. Factors such as these have been shown to improve team performance.
The warm down portion of an exercise is often skipped because its importance is overlooked. A good warm down helps to reduce the individual's pulse and rid the body of any waste products such as lactic acid. If an individual stops exercising suddenly without a warm down, blood can pool in the legs for example, instead of being returned to the heart. This can lead to feelings of nausea and dizziness. A warm down should consist of low impact aerobic exercise followed by stretching. Although static stretching is now believed to be less important during a warm up, it still holds value within the warm down. Muscles can be considerably shortened during exercise and without static stretching afterwards, they can remain permanently shortened.
In conclusion, the reasons for warming up are:
- To raise body temperature in preparation for exercise
- To increase blood flow to the major muscle groups around the body, helping to avoid injury
- To prepare the heart for increased activity by gradually increasing heart rate and therefore avoiding excessive stress being placed on the heart
- To improve psychological factors such as lowering anxiety levels and improving team cohesion
Reasons for warming down include:
- To gradually reduce pulse rate
- To return the blood to the heart instead of it pooling in the arms and legs
- To help lengthen muscles back to their usual size
- To help reduce stiffness and soreness by removing lactic acid from the body.