Warming Up

A physiotherapists perspective on Warm up and Cool down in sprinting:
Is it really necessary ?

Elite sprinters have long understood the necessity of warming up often employing a one hour process for a sub 10 second event. When athletes of this calibre undertake such elaborate preparations club athletes tend to mimic them but is there substance to the process ?

As with many topics when one tries to analyse the scientific literature definitive evidence is difficult to find. However, the consensus is that a defined warm up is an essential part of any athletes training methodology with the following two clear functions :

  • To help prevent Injury
  • To enhance performance

To understand how warm up achieves these functions we must first look at what we are trying to achieve. What does warming the body up actually do ?

Activities such as jogging, striding and performing sprint drills require muscular work. Working muscles release energy, producing heat and in addition increased demand for nutrients and oxygen. The demand is met by the cardio vascular system increasing circulation to the contractile tissues, which in turn, further increases muscle temperature.

The elastic tissues of the musculo-tendinous units become more flexible as their temperature increases reducing the risk of strain and potential injury.

The latter stage of warm up with running and sprint drills performed at near competition speed primes the biochemical energy delivery mechanisms within the muscles and ensures the cardio vascular system is at peak efficiency.

Sprint drills and fast striding trigger motor memory and the complex neural mechanisms required when an athlete performs a specific skill ensuring they are ready to execute good technique.

We have therefore theoretically established that by simply increasing body temperature the body becomes physiologically prepared for exercise.  It follows that wearing heat retaining but non restrictive clothing is helpful during warm up. Using thermal or compression clothing during training helps to retain heat and prevents cool down during interval or recovery periods.

Once the muscles are warm stretching can be undertaken.  Stretching should include both static exercises ( holding still at the end of the stretch ) and dynamic exercise ( stretches involving movement  with sprint drills often providing the perfect medium ) .  The process should be progressive from limited range at the start of the warm up when the muscles remain at normal body temperature to full range movements by the end when the elevated temperature improves mobility.

Equally importantly, warm up promotes structure and discipline providing a clear starting point to a training session or race. It allows the athlete to focus and create the necessary mindset to perform at a high level. Creating a well trodden reproducible routine engenders confidence and affords relaxation at a critical time particularly pre competition leading to improved performance.

The examples below provides a useful template:

Phase 1                   Gentle range of movement exercises

Wearing warm clothing in a sheltered area perform your preferred stretches to 2/3 of your maximal range.  Static stretches should be held for only 1 -2 secs and dynamic stretches performed slowly. Simple exercises to begin the warm up phase such as standing sprint arm action, or high knee walking on the spot are useful.

Phase 2                   Warming up exercises

Once you have gently stretched any tightness out of your muscles jog for 800m slowly

Perform your normal sprint drills at walking speed progressing to jogging speed. Include drills such as high knees with sprint arm action to work upper and lower limbs.

Run at moderate speed for 800m alternating 50 m strides progressing in speed up to 75% max pace and 50 m jogging

Phase 3                   Stretching and mobility  exercises

Now you are warm repeat your initial stretches now to full range, holding static stretches at the end of range for between 10-20 secs ensure you stretch your upper and lower limbs and your trunk thoroughly.

Incorporate your dynamic stretches such as long leg swinging, standing sprint arm action, seat kicks etc which can be progressively increased in speed and range.


Phase 4                   Technical Drills and speed running

You will now be full warmed up and this is the phase to complete the technical aspects of your warm up performing sprint drills at high speed working on perfect technique and finishing with rolling strides at or near competition pace. Remember smooth acceleration over 30 m stride fast for 60 metres decelerate over 30 – 40 m. You are now ready to train  

Cooling Down

Warming down is often neglected but is equally important and again part of the discipline required to perform at high level. The primary aim of warm down is to allow the body and mind to return to its resting state in a controlled manner. This is achieved by performing low level exercise aimed at maintaining body temperature and circulation at higher than resting levels.

The increased blood flow created allows the circulation and lymphatic system to continue to remove the toxic waste products of exercise, such as lactic acid and other metabolites that the muscles produce, which contribute to post exercise discomfort and stiffness. This prevents tight sore tissues from developing thus reducing injury risk during your next session. This process can be augmented by sports massage, altering temperature such as using ice or hot baths or by wearing specialised compression or recovery clothing.

Psychologically warm down allows the mind to return to its resting state and affords a period of reflection. Again the comfort of an often repeated procedure after a race gives the athlete a safe and positive place to retreat to mentally and prepares the athlete for the stress of competition.

By repeating Phase 2 and Phase 1 in reverse in appropriate clothing you will complete a structured warm down.