If Only I Knew...
How to Warm Up Properly
By Marie-Catherine Bruno, BScPT, Cped(C).
You see athletes warm up and stretch before a race. Do you ever do it yourself? Have you ever wondered why they ever bother going through that long ritual? And what about the cool down? Hum, so many topics you have been trying to avoid!
This one goes to all of you who still refuse to warm up properly, but still come up to me for advice on your chronic tendonitis…
The effects of warming up
Have you ever started your car below freezing point? Noticed how slow it is? Would you drive it straight to the freeway? If you answered no to my last question, then I will say: “if you do not do it to your car, why do you do it to your body?”.
The purpose of the warm up is to prepare your body to the highly demanding activity coming up. Just like a car, you cannot expect your heart to go from resting heart rate to 180 beats per minute in 10 seconds. If you let your body slowly get into the exercising mode, when the buzzer goes off at the start, you will be ready to go just like a race car. This will not only make your race more enjoyable (otherwise the first 20 minutes are extremely painful), but will probably help you shave a few minutes off your time.
How to warm up
The ideal is a slow jog or a fast walk (you want to go just a little faster than about half the speed you race at). If you are using a heart rate monitor, you want your heart rate to be at about 60% of your maximal capacity. It takes 15-20 minutes for your heart to get comfortable at that pace and start activating the different energy mechanisms required to sustain exercise for a long period of time. So therefore, your warm up should be of at least 15 minutes (the 10 minute walk to the start is not enough okay?!).
If you are competitive and know that you will be speeding up those hills, then you also want to prepare your heart for some serious demand. The trick is to get ready without tiring yourself out and building up lactic acid! The ideal is a good 15 minute slow jog, then some stretching (see below), and then some strides. The strides consist of very short sprints, anywhere from 5 to 10 seconds. They force your heart to go up really fast, but they are so short that they do not get you into producing lactic acid (a very painful waste product). You should do about 5-7 of them, with a rest period of about a minute between each one. Give yourself about another minute and you are ready to move up to the start.
What about stretching?
The main purpose of stretching is obviously to be flexible. But what does it serve you to be flexible if you do not intend to work for the Cirque du Soleil? Well, a flexible person is more agile, more efficient, more powerful and her stride is longer (for the same effort – a quick calculation shows you that if you increase your stride length by just a centimeter, you can shave off 20 seconds off your 10K time, totally effortless!) . A flexible person is also less prone to injuries because you might know that when a muscle gets stronger (from all the training you do), it gets bigger. But unfortunately, as the muscle grows bigger, its envelope (called the sheath) stays the same. Eventually, the bigger muscle uses all of the available girth of the sheath so the latter has to become shorter to compensate. It is when your muscle and its sheath have became shorter that it is easier to get injured. The tendon (see the first of this medical chronicle for a description) then starts pulling on the bone and this constant tension creates micro tears in the tendon itself or on the bone, later resulting in tendonitis and shin splints and/or even worse, a muscle pull or a rupture.
It is recommended that you stretch both before and after exercising. They both serve two different purposes, but still share a common goal: to become more flexible.
Before: stretching before exercising will help your body to get ready for the upcoming demand. Because when you run you use a longer stride than when walking, you need to slowly allow your muscles to reach that length, as opposed to all of a sudden, like when you are jumping over a log in your race.
After: a muscle is a bit like plastic, that is to say that when warm, it is much easier to stretch it. It is usually after the exercise, when your muscle is still warm, that you will gain the most length, therefore become more flexible. Also, some research shows that stretching after exercising helps reducing the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), making you less stiff the following morning!
How long: your muscles contain little nerves that respond to what is called the stretch reflex. So the minute you stretch a muscle, its reaction is to contract (that is what happens with the knee jerk at the doctor’s). It takes about 10-15 seconds to overcome this reflex. Only after will you gain some of the stretching effect. So it is recommended that you hold every stretch for over 30 seconds, ensuring that you have overcame the reflex and gained some length. Do not bounce, as you will reactivate the stretch reflex every time. You should do every muscle or muscle group 3-5 times.
You may notice that some of the muscles seem to take a much longer time to gain in flexibility. This can be due to some scar tissue (old injuries), or some other restrictions like fascia, nerves, ligaments. If the case, you may want to try the myofascial approach before consulting: do a regular stretch of 30 seconds, then follow with 2 longer stretches of 2 minutes each (it takes 90 to 120 seconds for the fascia to release). Do religiously every day for 2 weeks. If still not gaining anything, you may want to consult your physical therapist or sports doctor.
How much: a stretch should never hurt. You should stretch to the point where you feel some tension, and then stop there. If you are thinking no pain no gain, you are wrong this time. Creating muscle pain when stretching will force your muscle to go into protective mode, resulting in a muscle contraction, or even worse, a spasm. No need to say that you are not gaining any flexibility by doing that.
The cool down
The cool down is part of the after race protocol. It allows your heart to go back to a lower, more normal rate quicker, but also helps your body to flush out toxins faster; during effort, your body produces a lot of waste product from combusting sugars and fat, and those products make you sore the following day. So bottom line is that if you want to perform again tomorrow, you should cool down.
Just like the warm up, a very easy jog or a fast walk for about 10-20 minutes (the shorter the race, the longer the cool down – because the faster you go (like in short distance events), the more sugar your muscles consume and therefore more waste products in your blood. Also, in longer events, you go so slow that your body has a chance to eliminate even during the event). After that, sit down and stretch.
So now that you know all of the magics behind it, I hope you will warm up, stretch and cool down when racing and training. For the warm up part, you will need to get started 30-40 minutes before race time in order to do it properly. It is also a good moment to focus on your race plan and calm down before the race. For the cool down, may I recommend that the minute you cross the finish line, you move away from the crowd, drink some water, and start your cool down right away? Because I can tell you from personal experience that if you head straight to the result board, cool down is now history!