The Right Way to Warm Up Is... (your answer here)June 7th, 2010
Then, some went to a parking lot and did dynamic stretching — high knees, backward running, sideways running. Others vanished from the outdoor warm-up area, emerging again when the race was about to begin.
When it was all over, the men’s winner finished in 2:05:52, an average pace of 4 minutes 48 seconds per mile. Even the 10th-place finisher had a time of 2:10:33, or 4:59 a mile. So maybe these fast men know a secret about warm-ups.
Or maybe not.
Just about every serious competitive athlete, it seems, warms up before a race or even a training session. But there seems to be no particular method to their warm-ups.
Some, like Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder for the women’s marathon, spend more time warming up than most people spend running.
“Warm-up usually takes 45 to 50 minutes and is pretty much the same for workouts and races,” she told me. It consists of jogging for 10 to 20 minutes, stretching, and then doing strides.
But her warm-up is short and easy compared with the cyclist Andy Hampsten’s 90-minute warm-up before a time trial, in which cyclists ride one by one as fast as they can over a course that is typically about 25 miles.
Mr. Hampsten, who rode in the Tour de France and was the only American ever to win the Tour of Italy, began his warm-up with 30 minutes of easy riding followed by 40 minutes in which he rode as hard as he could for intervals of 2 minutes, alternating with 5 minutes at an easy pace, followed by 20 more minutes of easy riding. He said he knew he was warmed up when he got “a mild endorphin buzz.”
At the other extreme is the Olympic swimmer Dara Torres.
“I don’t need a ton of warm-up to be ready for my races,” she said. Her warm-up is just “some light swimming, kicking and drills,” followed by a few sprints.
Exercise researchers say they are not surprised by the lack of consensus on warming up. There is a theory of why it should improve performance, but there is dearth of good research on whether it actually does.
The theory, said Paul Laursen, a performance physiologist at the Millennium Institute of Sport and Health, in Auckland, New Zealand, is that muscles contract better after they have already been contracting.
As a muscle warms up, the force of its contractions can be charted like a staircase: when it starts to work, the contractions may be only half as strong as they are after it has contracted a few times. The explanation is that the contractions release calcium ions in the cells, enabling the muscle fibers to contract more forcefully. At the same time, muscle enzymes, which work best when slightly higher than body temperature, heat up and become more efficient.
That may be why the elite male marathoners did well after their slow shuffles. “Despite the fact that they can go so fast,” Dr. Laursen said, it will take only a few muscle contractions for their muscles to warm up effectively for their long duration event.”
But the story may be different for shorter events. Dr. Laursen said that athletes might do best with a high-intensity warm-up, the sort that Andy Hampsten did; that can allow fast-twitch muscle fibers to contract more efficiently and can prepare the nerve fibers and the cardiovascular system for an all-out effort.
That, at least, is the theory. What’s missing is evidence showing actual effects on performance.
There’s almost nothing credible, as Andrea J. Fradkin an exercise researcher at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, discovered when she searched for published studies on warm-ups. Most of the research was done in the 1960s and ’70s, she told me, and its quality was poor.
In a recent review article she wrote, “Many of the earlier studies were poorly controlled, contained few study participants and often omitted statistical analysis.”
The studies were of so little value, she concluded, that “it is not known whether warming up is of benefit, of potential harm, or having no effect on an individual’s performance.”
An exception is Dr. Fradkin’s own studies of warming up before playing golf. After a decade of research, she found that a seven-and-a-half-minute warm-up involving cardiovascular exercise, stretching and air swings — swinging a golf club without hitting a ball — can significantly improve performance.
But that does not necessarily mean the same routine will work in other sports. As Dr. Fradkin put it, “How can you compare improving performance in golf with improving performance in swimming?”
It’s an appalling situation, she told me. Serious athletes place so much emphasis on warming up, yet what they do is based more on trial and error than on science. For now, she said, what to do “is almost a ‘he said, she said’ thing.”