Last year I wrote a piece on the pros and cons of stretching which garnered a lot of interest. In that article I promised to look at warming up before exercise and in this post I will help you to traverse yet more tricky terrain in another controversial field.

You may be tempted to get into your exercise outfit and start exercising at full pelt. But wait… warming up will help you to exercise more efficiently, for longer, and it may help you reduce injuries.

Why you should warm up

An aerobic warmup is the traditional precursor to intense exercise. Stretching aside, all athletes walk, run gently or do some dynamic movements in anticipation of sprinting, swimming, rowing, playing field sports and so on. It’s intuitive to do so because we feel stiffer and less agile when we are cold. Warming up is certainly less contentious than stretching. It has fewer negative associations in the scientific literature, so I can tell you right now that it almost certainly won’t cause any problems (though see the ‘how’ section below). But is there definite benefit? Let’s see.

What does warming up achieve?

We know from studies that warming up oxygenates muscles, fuelling and preparing them for activity. Warming up raises your heart rate and blood pressure from levels appropriate for rest to levels that are right for physical activity. Warming up raises your body temperature, which improves muscle function and makes you more alert and responsive. It may also improve your strength and performance.

Will it reduce injuries? Perhaps. This study is promising but unless you are a young professional footballer it’s hard to say for sure if the research applies to you. There’s not much evidence on this because, frankly, almost all athletes warm up and it’s not ethical to prohibit an athlete from warming up if you’re including them in a scientific study. However, given that in clinic we see injuries which occur when people are not warmed up, we might safely assume that a warm up is protective.

What’s the best way to warm up?

The best warm up is to slowly perform the movements you’re going to be performing in the activity you’re about to do. This is a great approach because:

  1. It’s easy to remember
  2. It gets your premotor cortex ready – this is the part of the brain which plans movement, so you’ll actually perform better at your sport

So if you are a climber (like me), you’ll want to climb a few easy routes to get warmed up, and if you’re a runner you can walk and jog gently before running at full pelt. And so forth.

Are all warm ups equal?

Moderate intensity warmups are better than severe intensity warmups because if you warm up too strenuously you use up some of your glycogen (stored energy) which your muscles need. Short warmups are better than longer ones for the same reason, but also because of perceived fatigue – in other words, you will feel more energetic for the sport you are warming up for if you don’t warm up for too long. However, finding both the correct intensity and duration depend on you, your state of health and fitness, and the sport you’re intending to do. If you are an older adult, have an ongoing health concern or you are recovering from illness or injury, please go slow and gentle in your warm up. Your body’s adaptive capacity is reduced in all of these conditions.

By the way, if you’re feeling lazy you can passively warm yourself up using hot towels (just like the tyre warmers in Formula 1 racing) and still see some improvement in performance and endurance – but not as much as if you actively warm up.

In summary:

  1. Warm up to raise your heart rate and blood pressure from resting levels to levels appropriate for physical activity
  2. Warm up to provide fuel to muscles by perfusing them with oxygen
  3. Warm up moderately (but not for too long or you’ll affect your endurance)
  4. Warm up to decrease your chance of injury (though this isn’t clear yet)
  5. It’s safe and easy to do
  6. A focussed warm up that mirrors your sporting activity will improve your performance and mentally prepare you for it