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The Warm Up Debate

Is it important to warm up before a race?

by My Finish Line


Athletes take up to an hour. Swimmers twenty minutes. Rugby Players ten minutes. Some cyclists don’t even bother. Warming up is crucial for injury prevention and performance preparation, this is an accepted norm as well as a proven scientific fact.

So why the huge discrepancy about what is the accepted best practice when it comes to warming up? There are plenty of theories and protocols out there to ensure that warming up is done properly with the correct science and application, but so much of the practice itself is governed by history. ‘This is what we have always done’. Or even ‘this is what I have always seen other people in my sport do’. Some long distances runners jog for a few miles on the morning of a race in order to “blow out of the cobwebs’– and in the face of such a huge bandwidth of opinion it is ironic that it is the warm up concept where there is the greatest disconnect between modern thoughts and research and what people actually do. You’d have thought that it would be the simplest to have a set routine irrespective of the sport, but this is not the case.

The thought processes, whether as an endurance athlete or a team sport player, align that there needs to be some kind of elevated heart rate behaviour combined with psychological awakening before competition arises, yet we still see some getting passively stretched and massaged while others get a significant ‘sweat and blow’ before they hear the starting gun or cross the white line.

Stretching, especially while cold, is having its final time in the sun in sport before it disappears. Many research papers now point towards increased general flexibility and mobility having a huge bearing on injury prevention, yet stretching before competing being actually detrimental to performance. Being as flexible as a rubber band is great, the message goes, but aim for this as a constant, and not just as some pre-race ritual.

Elevating the heart rate and body temperature is vital for soft tissue injury prevention, yet some take this to the nth degree and judge the quality of their warm up by how much they can pant and sweat before competing. The term “get up to competition pace” is used often, but some are up to sprint finish pace before they start on the start line.

Some studies involving professional sports people have gathered that a 15 minute simple protocol of jogging and mobility yields the same results as a comprehensive 45min-60min pre-race preparation logistic involving drills sprints stretching and the like. The truth is that a 3-5 min bout of getting warm, applying the principles of what you are about to perform (i.e. if running, jog, if cycling, cycle etc) but at a reduced intensity is the best approach. Following this with an added 3-5 min of non-static mobility and you are ticking the right boxes. As long as you get warm without using up too much energy, sharp without being too intense, and mobile without stretching to the point of soreness, you’re all good.