The benefit of warming up before a training session – and cooling down
Back then it probably just felt like a needless way of becoming tired before the real action began. It’s often only when we age that we realise the real benefits of warming up and cooling down before and after training sessions. There’s good reason for this. Young muscles tend to be supple and elastic, and older ones more restricted and liable to tear – and we feel this instinctively when we exercise.
If warming up and cooling down are important, what is the best approach to take? Our guide explains.
WHY SHOULD I WARM UP BEFORE EXERCISE?
Warming up gets you up to speed for the physical activity to follow. It raises your heart-rate and body temperature, and gets your blood pumping around the body, carrying oxygen to the relevant muscle groups.
For short events, such as sprints, it’s obvious why this is important. If you’re not ready when the gun goes, the opposition disappear into the distance along with your chances.
But even for an endurance event such as triathlon, a fast start can be important. Being close behind the feet of quicker athletes in the swim so you benefit from their draft is a good example.
Warming up also helps with flexibility and range of movement. Other than hypermobile individuals, who are typically more concerned with overextending their joints, most of us welcome more efficiency of movement. If every stride feels easier because of looser hips, then those increments soon add up.
A third reason is injury prevention. If muscles are already warmed up, it reduces the chances of pulling or tearing the muscle fibres when you start with more intensive exercise.
The final point is that a focused warm-up helps place you in the right mental state to think about your challenge, whether an intensive training session or race. Logistics building into an event can often take your mind away from the physical activity, but the warm-up gives you space to refocus for what’s to come.
WHAT SHOULD MY WARM-UP CONSIST OF?
Warm-ups will differ depending on the individual and the type of training session or event, but there are some key principles worth considering.
The longer the event the shorter the warm-up. If you’re taking part in an Ironman you face hours of activity, and you’ll start relatively slowly. Being warmed up for the swim – and particularly the shock of cold water – is wise, but generally you’ll look to conserve energy beforehand. For very short events or training sessions where speed is more important – such as track intervals – a longer warm-up can make sure you are primed ready for an intensive burst.
Work through the range of motion. When warming up, consider the repetitive movement patterns you’ll be performing throughout your activity. For triathlon, this will be swimming, cycling and running, so warming up the shoulder joint ahead of your swim strokes makes sense.
Cover all bases. A good way to do this with a warm-up is to start from your neck and shoulders and systematically work down towards your toes. This can include mobility and activation exercises on joints you want to be flexible such as your shoulders, upper back, hips and ankles.
Active over passive. Sports scientists largely agree that an active warm-up regime is more favourable to passive stretching. An active warm-up features lots of movement to get the blood circulating and oxygen pumping around the body as opposed to passively stretching cold muscles.
Build the intensity. Warm-ups should start easy, often with a light jog or even brisk walk, and slowly build in intensity to a point where you can throw in some race-pace or even faster efforts.
WHEN SHOULD THE WARM-UP TAKE PLACE?
If you’re training, your warm-up can go straight into the main set. If it’s ahead of a race, you should time your warm-up to conclude with enough grace to allow you to regain your composure and find your position before the start.
Don’t fret if your warm-up is compromised because of a lack of space or time before the start. Just work within the parameters you have. For example, for large events, such as a marathon or triathlon, you might be corralled into a pen or wave and be made to wait for several minutes before the gun goes. Just try to keep yourself warm by exercising on the spot if necessary. A few extra layers that you can quickly discard right before the start can be handy here too.
WHY IS A COOL-DOWN IMPORTANT AFTER A TRAINING SESSION?
Cooling down after exercise allows your system to reset, helps retain muscle length and could reduce lactic acid build up and soreness.
A mixture of active and passive stretching can help and it’s useful to work through as many muscle groups as you can, especially those that have been put under the most duress during the activity.
Often cooldowns are neglected in the exhaustion of finishing a race or hard training session. It takes discipline to retain them as a core part of your post training or post-race regime, so plan to give yourself enough time.
Alongside cooldowns, replenishing your system with food and drink post exercise will also aid recovery. The 20 minutes after exercise is thought to be an important window to restock on carbohydrate and protein, as well as having a more substantial meal within two hours to help your muscles recover and replace their glycogen stores. Therefore, you could combine the cooldown with a recovery or protein shake, before celebrating your achievement with a burger and beer!
EXAMPLE RACE DAY WARM-UP
This warm-up is for triathlon, but could be adapted for other endurance events. Start with very gentle 5-10min jog (include upper body rotation and arm swings to loosen up). Add skipping, running backwards and side-stepping to mix it up. Move on to mobility work, including:
Circles with your ankle
Leg swings to open the hips
Knee ‘side-to-sides’ while lying on your back
Shoulder shrugs both directions
Neck mobility – side to side and forward-back. Return to a jog and break into 3 x sets of 100 or so ‘strides’ – light, fast steps but not overly taxing.
DO WARM-UPS WORK?
The research suggests they do. A study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics saw 36 athletes split into three groups to perform weighted lunges. One group cycled for 20 minutes beforehand, one group only did a cool-down, and the final group did neither. They were all tested for muscle soreness in the following two days and the group who warmed up had the highest pain threshold and reported relatively ache-free muscles.
HOW LONG SHOULD I WARM UP FOR?
It’s a balance between getting yourself primed for the event and not inducing more fatigue for what’s to come. For most activities you should try to set aside at least 5-10 minutes to work through a warm-up routine – the NHS website suggests at least 6 minutes.
CAN I FORGO A WARM-UP AND JUST START EASY?
You can and many people do, however it might not be the best approach. A focused warm-up can help you check-in with your own body to feel which parts are restricted and need extra attention, and which need activating and waking up.
HOW DO I WARM UP FOR A TRIATHLON?
With the swim the first discipline, bringing some stretch cords to mimic your swim stroke on dry land can be a good idea, but make sure you practice with them first. Whether you can enter the water before the start depends on the event organiser. If you can, it’s often a good idea to acclimate, even if it only involves splashing water down your wetsuit or on to your face. If you can get in for a swim, ease yourself into it and then find space for a few fast-paced strokes. If you want to warm-up ahead of pulling on your wetsuit, you can start with a light jog. Some triathletes even pack rollers so they can warm up on the bike.