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We are always told to warm up before exercise; but why, and what should the warm up be like? How much should I warm up?
A warm up serves 3 primary purposes. To enhance performance and prevent injury during exercise. The warm up is not just physical either, there is a mental component to preparing for an event or workout.
The warm up gets you mentally ready . This mental warm-up prepares athletes for the discomfort of a tough interval session or a race. If the mind is ready to take some discomfort (pain), the body can produce higher speeds. If the mind is unwilling to endure discomfort, the physical performance will certainly be limited.
At rest there is a relatively low 15-20% of blood flow to the skeletal muscles. Most of your small blood vessels (capillaries) are closed. After a full body warm up of 10-12 minutes, this percentage increases to 70-75% and the capillaries open up increasing blood flow. Increased blood flow increases muscle temperature. This is good because the haemoglobin in your blood releases oxygen more readily at a higher temperature. Similarly, just the increased blood flow makes more O2 available. More oxygen means better performance.
The warm up is also important to prevent injuries. Although mainly anecdotal, evidence and logic would dictate that a warm muscle will be more elastic than one that is cold. This goes for connective tissue and cartilage too. If you put a rubber band in the freezer for ½ an hour then fully stretch it, it will break. If you put it in some hot water though, it will have far greater elasticity. Your muscles are like the rubber band.
No real studies have been done on the perfect duration and content of a warm up. This is partly because of the high number of variables at play. Most coaches or PTs would recommend between a 10 and 20 minute warm up, though for some people it may be longer, depending on the event.
Athletes at a high level of fitness would need a longer warm up for a maximal race or training session. Those with lower fitness levels would need a shorter warm up as the session will be at a lower intensity.
The shorter and more intense the race is, the longer and more gradual the warm up will need to be. The warm up for a competitive elite level 100m sprint might be an hour or more for example. But the longer and slower events, like a marathon, would need less time to get warmed up for, as it’s at a lower intensity.
A good general recommendation for a warm up is 10-12 minutes, starting slowly (about 3/10 on a scale of difficulty) then speeding up 10% every 2 minutes or so. There should also be some faster bursts towards the end of the warm up. This will “wake up” the fast twitch, specialist muscle fibres and get them communicating with the brain properly. An example of this warm up would be: