Whether you're picking up a tennis racquet or about to knock down jumpshots this summer, a proper warm-up is key to helping prevent injuries and improve your performance. While almost every competitive athlete performs some sort of warm-up, "little is actually known about how one should warm up," says Elias Tomaras, an exercise physiologist at the University of Calgary.
According to recent research, too long a warm-up can actually sap your energy and lessen your performance. Here's what you need to know before lacing up.
It's called a warm-up for a reason. "Once your temperature goes up, then you've got an increase in neural conduction velocity, the speed at which you're transmitting impulses down your nerves," says David Behm, associate director of graduate studies and research at Memorial University's school of human kinetics and recreation.
The body's enzymes also cycle faster, meaning the body can process energy faster. And, he adds, muscles become less stiff as they get warmer. It means you'll be ready to start out swinging on the first tee as opposed to the third or fourth. But you only want to raise your body temperature one to two degrees Celsius. More than that and, as Dr. Behm says, "things start to go wrong." Enzymes start to break down, and rather than processing energy faster, the body will actually begin to lose energy.
FOR HOW LONG?
Is your warm-up too long? In a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers at the University of Calgary worked with national team track cyclists to determine whether a shorter, lower-intensity warm-up was more effective than a longer, higher-intensity one. Turns out the former significantly boosted performance.
Monique Sullivan, a national track team member, has adopted a shorter, lower-intensity warm up. "It didn't take long for me to see it was going to work for me," she says.
Brian MacIntosh, a physiologist at the University of Calgary and co-author of the study, notes that the research only covers activities that require short bursts of activities - its principles don't necessarily apply to marathon runners, for instance. But a shorter, easier warm-up is just as beneficial to elite athletes as it is to weekend warriors looking to compete at their peak, Dr. MacIntosh says.
Every warm-up should include three components, Dr. Behm says: raising the body's temperature, stretching and a "sport-specific action." In other words, if you're about to play tennis, you want to rally beforehand; if you're playing golf, hit the range before you go to the first tee.
"You want to warm up your brain and your central nervous system," Dr. Behm says. Sport-specific actions help to program the brain and neuromuscular system about the actions they're about to perform. "If you're going to do a couple of jump shots, or your forehand, or kick a soccer ball, then you're going to open up those neural pathways so they become more automatic."
It's a concept gaining popularity among top athletes and coaches, says Michael Koehle, principal investigator at the University of British Columbia's Environmental Physiology Lab.
"More and more teams are doing a warm-up that isn't just getting warm, but almost waking up your neuromuscular communication," he says.
With Environment Canada calling for a hotter than usual summer, athletes are going to be doing plenty of sweating. While the same principles of having a warm-up apply regardless of the season, the objectives are easier met when it's cooking outside.
As the mercury rises, it does not take as much time to raise muscle temperature, Dr. Koehle says. That means shortening your warm-up on hotter days.
BRING IT DOWN
Whether you've just crossed the finish line or the final whistle has blown, don't stop moving. A cool-down is essential for recovery, Dr. Koehle says. Some people may think it's necessary to bring heart rate down gradually. It's not. There's no danger of bringing down a person's heart rate too quickly. Instead, a proper cool-down is advised because it will aid muscle recovery.
Following anaerobic activity, muscles can be filled lactic acid, which causes them to ache. You want to get rid of this waste materials as quickly as possible and flood the muscle with oxygen and glucose to restore energy.
Keep blood flowing into and out of muscles with a cool-down that is "well below your anaerobic threshold," meaning you should be able to easily chat without gasping, Dr. Koehle says. The duration should be proportional to the intensity of the activity. For instance, if you've just played a gruelling three-hour game of tennis, you'll need to give yourself more time than if you went for a leisurely bike ride.