Is a warm up really necessary or can you cut to the chase after just a couple of minutes of going slow? And what does cooling down actually achieve? Coach Joe Beer of JBST.com explains the rationale…
Warming-up and cooling down are fixed in the folklore of exercise. We’ve all seen the inflexible athlete over-straining on the start line or before a session, stood anxiously waiting for others to turn up. Then there’s the smug hyper-flexible person stretching after a session, looking more like a circus act than a cooling off athlete. Various exercises have become ingrained into the psyche of what makes a session, but the evidence to support some of them is not forthcoming. So lets sort out why you should warm up and cool down…
Warming up the body is akin to letting the car idle for a few minutes before driving off. Or at the least driving with a smooth right foot until the engine temperature has increased from cold. The human body is much the same: it requires time to reach its ideal working temperature. If you push it too hard too soon, whilst it can “get away” with it, the physical strain can cause immediate injury or a longer-term repeated “stressing of the body”.
Going too hard, too hilly or too dynamic may, just may, result in injury. However, what is certain is that elevating the body temperature with aerobic exercise allows the oxygen in the blood to be released more effectively, energy production becomes more efficient and both nervous system impulses and muscle viscosity improve. Around 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise at moderate intensity, say 50 to 65% of maximum heart rate, gets you whole body ready for more strenuous riding. Game on…
For many the time spent cruising for a few minutes is ‘wasted time’. They want to be fit fast, get to work even faster or just ignore the need to subtly introduce your body to training via light exercise. Interestingly very fit athletes take longer to warm up as their potential maximum power and energy production is much greater than a keep fit person. At just 50% of peak power a very good cyclist could be using over 1000 calories per hour or around 3.5 litres of oxygen a minute. That low level effort by the fit rider could actually be near to the peak of less fit occasional exercisers!
So what ways can you warm up before training to ensure that the nerves, muscles and energy pathways get prepared?
Well, there are three ways to warm up: passive, general and specific. Passive is simply being in a warm environment, such as sitting in a warm room or even a sauna (not very practical that one I agree). General is doing activities that move the body but they may not be the same as the intended exercise. So you could run on the spot for 5 minutes or, some people also think of stretching as applicable though you will see below that it is not.
However, far and away the best is a specific warm-up. This uses the exercise you are going to perform but at low intensities. Spinning on a exercise bike for 10 minutes at 50% effort would be ideal if you wanted to get warm before starting a cold ride that includes a very early steep hill. Or walking slowly before starting an easy jog and then eventually running is another example. But who walks out of te front door, clicks their stop watch and IMMEDIATELY starts running.
Choose routes or easier equipment settings to allow 10 to 15 minutes light exercise before starting to “train” proper – this will make it easier on your brain and body
The research article entitled Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure relationship is a great title and it should immediately have you thinking that perhaps stretching is not all that its cracked up to be. The study noted that clinical evidence suggesting stretching before exercise does not prevent injuries has little basis. You are better doing aerobic work than bizarre stretching routines. Think about it – how far are your ankle, knee, hip and lower back actually bending during most of your sports? Not far.
The experts also noted that the stretching of tendons is not advantageous for cycling, where the range of motion is limited. We are not 100m runners or gymnasts. It would be useful to receive a massage as a treat to relieve those tight shoulders from working at a computer and the lower back or hips from running sorted. But save your stretching time and do easier warm up’s.
More recent research also shows that general fitness, rather than stretching, is a more important risk factor in injury prevention. Evidence suggests that increasing range of motion beyond your required function through stretching is not beneficial and can actually cause injury and decrease performance. Read that again. So don’t over stretch, just, as often is the case with my clients: find how to be better time efficient and relax at the start of your training sessions.
Make a note that where stretching has been found to aid performance it is preceded with an aerobic warm up of at least 5 minutes. Better still do it at the end of the session.
You may like to stretch after the aerobic riding listed above, however keep stretching light and relaxed. Never use stretching to warm a muscle instead of riding, its still cold inside and will be straining like mad
Hands up who actually has the time to slow up at the end of a session and cool down? Note how I say cool down, as warm-down is not the right term. You are cooling the body down. This allows heat to be got rid of, heart rate to start to return towards lower resting levels and hormones to get back to normal. Your brain also has to move from “exercise world” back to normal life. You’ll be less like a gibbering wreck when you warm down and walk through the front door or return to the office.
Studies show a lower resting HR is achieved after exercise when doing a cool down. It also results in improved heart function compared to stopping abruptly. So, light exercise plays an important role in facilitating blood return to the heart from the muscles. It also helps to restore the elevated heart rate to the pre-exercise resting level. It’s not a waste of time, its easing the recovery process and making you better at fitting in to the real world.
At this time some people who like to – or need to – stretch can do their routine. If you have the time that’s great but don’t cut short a warm up and cool down (10-20 mins each) and make time to try to become super flexible. Studies show that flexibility is a facet of fitness that does not reduce injury risk. Some data even suggests it increases your chances of injury. You’re a biker, runner, swimmer – I doubt if you are reading this if you are a gymnast.
Take 5 to 10 minutes to reduce effort and exercise lightly at the end of sessions. You may like to do light limbering/stretching work but it is nowhere near as important as warm-up and cool-down time.
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