Warm Up and Cool Down Strategies

Adequate preparation is vital for any athlete during the various phases of training and competition. A warm-up routine before a training session is generally accepted and a widely used practice before performing other forms of exercise.

Physiologically, an effective warm-up causes vasodilation of the blood vessels, warranting greater oxygen supply to muscles. Core body temperature and importantly muscle temperature is raised and primed for optimal efficiency and movement during the warm up. Thus, joints are more effective at being moved through their full range of motion when under tension or load, hence reducing the likelihood of injury. One needs to ensure that the heart rate is raised slowly as this will minimize unwanted stress on the heart. A gradual warm-up prepares both the circulatory and respiratory systems.

With an effective warm-up routine, an athlete can improve the initial state of physical and mental readiness necessary for training and competition. A successful warm-up routine can improve subsequent performance, reduce muscle soreness, and aid in the prevention of injuries.

It is important to ensure that the warm up is dynamic, specific and long enough. The warm up can afford to be shorter in warm weather though it should be actively longer in colder weather. There are even some scenarios where a second warm up may be necessary, depending on the length of time between the end of the warm up and the start of the training session or competition.

We might call this ‘protecting what you’ve got’. However, there might be another strategy that is even more effective.

Once an athlete has warmed up, the key is to maintain the warm up benefits while waiting for the competition to start. The majority of research in this area focuses on maintaining the increased muscle temperature that results from the warm-up. Research suggests that athletes can lose 2oC of heat after 20 mins of passive rest following the warm-up, which is enough to significantly harm competition performance. Over the past decade, many researchers have studied the effectiveness of passive heat maintenance at maintaining body temperature. Athletes in both team sports and individual sports use this strategy by completing an intense warm-up followed by wearing clothing that will maintain their body heat (sometimes using a jacket lined with a survival foil blanket).

Just because you feel warm after the warm-up, does not mean you’ll still be warm when you line up to compete. It’s far easier to keep the heat you have than to try and warm yourself up again. Once the warm-up is complete, athletes should put on clothing that will maintain their body heat. Bear in mind that in some environments, it’s important that you’re not too hot, especially prior to prolonged endurance races. However, it is rare that athletes are too hot when they line up at the start. For the triathlons I used to compete in, most races (especially Ironman’s and Half Ironman’s) started early in the morning when it’s cooler and, as a result, I tended to overdress prior to the start. Fortunately, most long-distance triathlons start with a wetsuit-permitted swim. Some athletes even have the goal of continuing to sweat in the time between the warm up and the start of the race by using appropriate clothing.

An effective warm up routine can be completed in many, many different ways and most follow a progressive intensity model. However, research has consistently found that warm-ups need to also have periods of high-intensity exercise to enhance subsequent performance. This concept was tested in Olympic level bob-skeleton athletes in a study published in 2013. The athletes did their normal warm-up or a more intense version of their warm-up with more emphasis on sprint drills, sprints, and shorter rest periods. The more intense trials enhanced the athletes’ performance during testing and secured them three Winter Olympic titles.

Periods of high-intensity during a warm up, can also enhance endurance performance.

In another 2013 study, 11 well-trained middle-distance runners undertook an 800m time trial following two different warm-up protocols. In the first trial, the runners undertook 6 x 50m strides. In the second, they undertook 2 x 50m strides and a single 200m high-intensity run. Following the 200m sprint, the athletes were approximately 1% faster than the 800m time trial, representing an important marginal gain.

As opposed to high intensity exercise, static stretching while warming up has been proven to be less effective and/or beneficial when compared to other warm-up activities that achieve circulatory and respiratory outcomes. Some studies even suggest that static stretching prior to strength training may reduce session performance.

An effective cool-down is essential for the body’s recovery process, in that it can assist in reducing muscles shortening and likelihood of an injury occurring. It can also improve performance and enhance the subsequent training session. Cooling down after intense activity allows the body to gradually transition back to a resting or near-resting state.

It is just as critical as the warm up as it keeps blood flowing throughout the body and avoids significant drops in both heart rate and blood pressure, following exercise. Static stretching in the cool-down can help relax working muscles and restore them to their resting length by improving flexibility over time. It can also allow for greater movement and therefore less stress on both the surrounding joints and tendons.

Peak Preparation can explain the science of warming up and cooling down and assist you to establish an effective warm up and cool down routine to complement your training and ultimately improve your performance.