Warm-Up and Cool -Down: Why and How

Dear Friend,

I wish you and your family a Healthy and Happy 2013.

Yesterday I watched my son’s High School soccer game. As so often, my observations triggered a new blog. During the middle of the game one of my son’s teammates, who just a few minutes earlier had entered the game as a sub, went down on to the pitch in a great deal of pain. No one knew exactly why. I thought it was the lack of proper warm-up before he entered the game that caused the injury. Turns out I was wrong. Upon further examination the boy showed all classical symptoms of Sciatica. However having observed his warm-up prior to coming into the game made me want to write a blog discussing the changes that have taken place over the past 4-5 years with respect to warm-up and cool-down and the scientific reasoning behind these changes.

The right warm-up and a proper cool-down need to be essential parts of every work-out and athletic competition. Correctly done they help minimize the risk for injury, increase physical performance and help with recovery after the competition or work-out.

The preferred warm-up of the past and that of my son’s teammate included some form of gradually increased cardio vascular activity ( in his case way too little) like running, cycling, swimming etc. to increase the body’s core temperature and blood circulation within the muscles. This phase was followed by static stretches to increase flexibility and range of motion (prolonged stretches that are used to increase the length of soft tissue and flexibility of the muscle). This warm-up procedure is flawed in at least two ways.

  1. Static stretching is a very inactive warm-up method which leads to a decrease in muscle and body-core temperature that had just been elevated during the first phase of the warm-up. Therefore rendering the cardio-vascular warm-up part worthless. Reducing muscle temperature and core-temperature reduces physical performance ability (reduced oxygen supply, reduced neurological activation level) and increases risk of soft tissue injury as a colder muscle is less pliable/flexible and tears easier.
  2. Besides that, several recent studies have shown that static stretches reduce the muscles ability to contract forcefully leaving that stretched out muscle weakened for up to an hour. This muscle weakness leads to an increased risk for injury and a muscle performance reduction.

Does this mean static stretches should be avoided all together? The answer is no. Static stretches are still a vital part of an athletes overall training. They do increase flexibility and improve joint biomechanics thereby reducing risk for injury to soft tissue and joints. Static stretches should based on today’s knowledge be performed as part of a cool-down procedure and/or be done on off days.

Lately we are leaning more and more towards sports specific dynamic warm-up programs. These dynamic warm-ups focus more on the neuromuscular systems of the muscle. Dynamic warm-ups help with short term flexibility gains and lead to more adequate protective reflex responses from the Golgi Tendon Organs without compromising the strength of the muscle. Golgi Tendon Organs are lying deep within the muscles and protect the muscles from being overstretched. If not properly prepared and activated during warm-up these organs often over react during sports activities leading to muscle strains. Dynamic warm-up protocols help dampen the reaction of the Golgi Tendon Organs leading to improved muscle performance.

To properly warm-up I suggest you continue to start the same way you used to. Brisk walking, jogging or cycling etc. will help increase core and muscle temperature, improve oxygenation of muscle, and get your metabolic and nervous systems ready for action. After that skip the static stretches and move into dynamic sports specific exercises such as high knee jogging, butt kickers, multi directional lunges, bear walks, leg swings, arm circles etc.

After completing your work-out or competition slowly turn the system back down by gradually decreasing the intensity. Slow jogging and static stretches are a good way of returning physically and mentally to a real life activity level.

I hope I was able to shed some light on the recent changes to Warm-Up and Performance Readiness. As always, if you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me.

A Sante,
Hartmut

Sources:
Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise/SM00067
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. ” 2008:
http://hpcsport.com/publications/staticstretching2.pdf
About.com: http://sportsmedicine.about.com/cs/injuryprevention/a/aa071001a.htm
IDEA: http://www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/pre-run-stretch-hampers-endurance

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