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Warm Up Before Exercise like a Pro

Some of us won’t even consider the thought of warming up until we arrive on race morning and see others going through various processes of jogging around, jumping on the spot, sprinting and stretching. An increasing anxiety or panic might set in, as you think: “Am I missing out?” or “What should I be doing to give myself the best chance to do well?” or even, “I shouldn’t warm up because I need to save every bit of energy for the race.”

If you haven’t practiced warming up or put any thought into it, then you might do something unusual—a departure from your typical routine— that could actually be detrimental to your performance and body. If you haven't practiced warming up in training, then how do you know what will work for your physiology and what doesn't? Ultimately, not warming up at all is proven to be detrimental to your health and performance if you plan on doing any activity with a medium to high intensity. 

What is the best warm-up to do?

The answer is: it depends.  What is right to do for a warm-up depends on your fitness levels, performance expectations and what you are trying to achieve in the subsequent workout (especially the length of what is to come after). 

Warm-up techniques are primarily chosen with the aim to increase body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, blood flow and joint viscosity. They can be classified in three major categories: 

1.    Passive warm-up. Increases body temperature by external means (i.e. hot showers, sauna, heating pads, EMS device, or massage).  A passive warm-up may be beneficial as a lead-in to a specific warm-up, but is largely impractical for most people. One of the perks of being a professional athlete is accessibility to forms of passive warm-up. Though, I don’t find them to be a necessity. An elite athlete will still perform a specific warm-up following a passive one, so you should too.

2.    General warm-up. Increases temperature through non-specific body movements. A general warm-up may or may not be a waste of time you could better use in a specific warm-up. For example, performing jumping jacks or burpees before a running race is not the best use of your time and energy, but it does get some blood flowing. A general warm-up is still better than no warm-up at all, but we can do better by being more specific.

3.    Specific warm-up. Increases temperature using similar body parts to be used in the subsequent activity. The latest best practice involves a specific warm-up because this method provides a rehearsal (both physically and neurologically) of what you are about to do in the main workout. A specific warm-up wins out because there is far more to warming up than simply raising core body temperature and breathing heavier. 

I believe your goal should be to become educated enough to choose whether a warm-up is necessary and how best to structure the warm-up for the specific day ahead. For example, if you’re just going for a stroll, a recovery run or about to run a 100-mile (30+ hour) race you might not need a specific warm-up. For almost every activity in between—especially those involving higher intensity—a specific warm-up is a really good idea. However, there will be differences in warm-up structure depending upon your choice of activity (i.e. perform a weight-lifting workout, or a 5km race, or a half marathon). 

I found the best course of action was to look at what the top professional’s do, because winning at the top level—when everyone is so similar in fitness—is all about finding the marginal gains and not making any preventable errors. A poor warm-up is a very preventable error, and a good warm-up is potentially a performance elevator. Current best practice in elite sports determine four core benefits arising from a specific warm up:

1.    Physical readiness
2.    Mental readiness
3.    Injury prevention and fatigue management
4.    Performance enhancement

Key point: If you are going to perform any medium to high intensity efforts then a carefully planned and practiced specific warm-up is absolutely essential for a number of compelling health and performance reasons.


Physical readiness: It Helps Your Heart and Delays Fatigue

A gradual and progressive warm-up is considered best practice for warming up the muscles and preparing the circulatory and respiratory systems for greater overload. Warm ups typically involve cardiovascular exercise, helping to get the heart rate up and open up muscle capillaries for additional blood flow and delivery of oxygen. As the body heats up—and metabolism increases—our energy levels also get a boost.

As the body warms, it undergoes a series of complex chemical and hormonal changes regulating energy metabolism. The increase in blood supply helps to enhance nervous system function, improving the efficacy, impact and ability to endure a longer duration of exercise. 

If you fail to warm up before any bout of high intensity exercise, the cardiovascular system is forced to shift from a resting rate to a high heart rate very rapidly. The body deems this an unnatural stress response (an emergency), causing significant stress on the heart and nervous system. Studies have found sudden high-intensity exercise results in abnormal ECG changes attributed to low blood supply to the heart muscle in 70% of the subjects tested. These subjects were healthy men free from any form of heart disease. The abnormal changes were not related to any specific age or fitness level, meaning such changes can occur to any athlete regardless of experience and fitness levels.

The body responds to the sudden shock by priming the “fight or flight” system; flooding the body with stress hormones, such as cortisol. While cortisol is a steroid hormone, it has a catabolic—rather than anabolic—effect on muscle tissue, increasing fatigue and inflammation, suppressing immune function and increasing the risk of injury; it is certainly not performance enhancing. Exercise always increases cortisol levels, but you want to keep cortisol as low as possible for optimal recovery, meaning all your training needs to be intelligently structured to ensure the lowest possible cortisol release. You want to stress the body to grow strength and stamina through an anabolic response, but not over stress it and switch into a catabolic state. Studies have determined progressively warming up before high intensity exercise does not release anywhere near as much cortisol.

Over the long-term, if you train with the type A mentality and just go from A to Z rapidly, you may quickly develop chronically elevated cortisol levels, which will have significant negative impact on your recovery, sleep and mood. I know this detrimental outcome well, because this is how I trained for almost three years when I first started trail running over a decade ago. I would not warm-up and I would commence to run up very steep hills as fast as I could. Some of my workouts were over in less than 10 minutes. I loved training this way because it was so efficient and addictive, but it greatly affected my health over the long term as I slowly developed symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. After a while, I was barely recovering from brief short workouts even if I had multiple days or even a week off to rest. I also lost muscle mass and strength, and I would need 11-12 hours sleep a night just to function normally. 

Key point: Don’t kill your gains. Progressively raise heart rate slowly to help minimise stress on the heart and stop the release of performance reducing stress hormones.

Pro Tip: A warm-up can tell you a lot about your present state of health before you really push it too hard. If you still don’t feel good at all after a warm-up—if there is nausea, dizziness, abnormal weakness, or an elevated heart-rate not normal for you (that isn’t simply happening from pre-race nerves)—really check-in with your body and decide if continuing is really the best option. You could postpone the workout and get more rest or switch up your training plan from any higher intensity and simply perform a low intensity recovery day. Sometimes you don’t know if your immune system is compromised and training through it with a high-intensity session may only increase your chances of becoming ill and setting you back even further. Listen to your body, be flexible and know when to back off and come back another day.


Mental Readiness

This is pretty straight forward. A warm-up help gets your head in the game and focused on what you are about to do in the “meat” of the workout or race. If you want the best results from the time and energy you are investing in training, then switching off mental distractions allows more opportunity for giving your best effort. A warm-up helps shift focus into the present moment; transitioning the mind into a form of meditation or trance, commonly referred to as “the zone” where our ability to perform the best awaits.

One of the challenges we all face is having energy to do a workout. Personally, I find the most lethargic or tired feelings occur in the opening 10-20 minutes of any workout. It is not unusual for my body to feel tired, unresponsive, a little achy when I first start moving—regardless of how fit and active I am at the time—but by the end of a warm-up I am feeling good to go and quite energised most of the time. 

Experiencing and understanding the process of how your body shifts state will help you build confidence especially if you are about to race or about to hit a hard session of intervals. If you mentally know what hardship is to come and you feel terrible even before you begin, it can destroy your self-confidence. Lack of confidence will stop you from pushing through the mental barriers you need to break through to perform well and even hit a new personal best. 

I know from personal experience, the body seems to listen to what your mind is willing it to do (to a point), so part of the warm-up is also a mental "placebo effect" happening. With a good warm-up performed prior to a race, you know you are ready to go and not wondering or anxious about how the body is going to react in those opening minutes as everyone sprints off the start line. Less anxiety and worry means not burning up that little bit of extra energy you may need at the end of a race.

There is nothing worse than starting a race and feeling that tired or lethargic feeling from the get-go. If you feel this you can effectively sabotage your race through self-defeating thoughts and energy-consuming anxiety, when all you had to do was warm-up properly. You might think, “I have no legs today,” when you actually did have good legs, you just sabotaged them. By pushing too hard before your heart is really ready (referred to as red-lining) you may sabotage performance as lactic acid and cortisol builds up too fast in your system. Personally, I find the ability to clear an early rush of lactic acid into the muscles can take between 5-15 minutes to normalise. In that time, you can lose a lot of time, and potentially not even rebound back to your best.

Once you’ve done a proper warm-up a few times and performed a great workout or race after it, you will then know the warm-up’s true value and this builds self-assurance and confidence to succeed. You learn not to panic if there are aches and tiredness on race morning, you know to be confident this feeling will pass and you remain mentally tough and resilient.


Performance Enhancement

Elite coaches now use warm-ups as a crucial method of enhancing performance. Studies have found a warm up helps to improve reaction time, results in greater levels of muscle strength and power, faster muscle contraction and relaxation, reduced joint viscosity (the release of synovial fluid lowers the risk of injury and stress on the tendons and ligaments), lowered viscous resistance in joints, improved oxygen delivery, increased blood flow and other enhanced metabolic reaction. Lowering the energy rates of metabolic chemical reactions means your body uses less energy, so you fatigue later than you would without a warm-up.

Key point: Endurance from medium to high intensity exercise is compromised without a sufficient warm-up due to the earlier onset of fatigue. 

When the body is shocked from a quick transition between low and high intensity, our muscles experience a rapid build-up of lactic acid (LA), causing muscle fatigue at a much faster rate. This is often why the first few minutes of a workout can feel the worst as LA begins to flood into the muscle. LA has a bad rap, but it can also be an important ally in high intensity performance. When we exercise anaerobically, LA begins to accumulate faster than the body can remove it resulting in a negative impact on performance. However, while the body relies largely on glucose for fuel—and a by-product of this is LA—LA is an even better fuel source than glucose presuming there is enough oxygen flow coming into the muscles. If you can “catch your breath”, the muscles start to get enough oxygen in and the LA can be helpful in maintaining a high intensity effort. Without the oxygen, LA cannot be used for fuel. So, there is an optimal performance “sweet spot” where we can perform at our best once glucose, LA and oxygen are carefully primed to a certain balance.

I have raced many vertical races (stair climbs in the ~10 min range and vertical KM races in the ~40 min range) where this balance is critical to a good performance. The races are so short you need to push at your upper limit—go as fast as you go—but be able to maintain that intensity for 10 or 40 minutes. If you go too deep into the red early, the race can unravel very fast. Personally, I find it takes at least 15 minutes to prime the body to enter this primed state ready to use LA as fuel. 

Without a warm-up, any 10-15 minute stair climb is over before the body is ready to perform properly, and the VK would be almost 50% over before the body is really ready to perform at its best. This is how many people sabotage their race results and wonder why they performed so badly. “I just didn’t have the legs today,” is a common excuse for what was really poor planning and execution.

Key point: The goal of top-level performance is to begin a race with the muscle lactate system primed—to ensure the lactate-VO2 balance is optimised—so you are ready to hit the “sweet spot” state from minute zero. Your body must be slowly and carefully primed ready to use LA to fuel performance.


Injury Prevention

Studies on animals determined injuring a muscle after a warm-up required more force than a muscle with no warm-up.

A proper warm-up minimizes the chances of a major muscle tear and also minimises the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Feelings of DOMS typically arise between 24-72 hours following the activity and involves minor muscle tears responsible for soreness, inflammation and stiffness felt following a harder than usual training session. DOMS is common when we perform new or unfamiliar movements, so, if you haven’t run for years and then go out for your first run, it is almost guaranteed you will feel DOMS in your calves, hamstrings and quads.

DOMs isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it shows the training stimulus pushed your body beyond what it is presently capable of doing. This is the point of training, to stress the body so it can grow and adapt to this new level of stimulus in the future. We have to be careful because stressing the muscles involves causing some level of micro-tearing. It is a delicate balancing act because you want to do enough to force growth, but not too much where excessive soreness or injury affects your ability to train consistently. 

The best approach is easing carefully into a new training program to give your muscles, tendons and ligaments a chance to get used to the new impacts and loads and then training consistently with small progressive overloading increments so you improve without too much compromise to your body. Furthermore, the same philosophy of easing into intensity needs to apply each new day. A warm-up will decrease the severity of those micro-tears, meaning we can keep training harder and not feel as destroyed by DOMS following the harder training sessions.

Key point: Ask yourself is it worth the risk of sustaining a long-lasting major muscle tear because you didn’t spend the 10-20 minutes to warm-up?

What about Stretching?

Whether to stretch or not is perhaps the most common question of all regarding a warm-up. And for good reason. Many of us spend all day sitting, so our range of motion and flexibility is decreased. We might then logically fear becoming injured once we embark on a demanding training session or race unless we loosen up the tightness.

 A common mistake many people make when warming up is only stretching and calling that a warm-up. Stretching and warming up are two very different things. Stretching does nothing to warm the body up compared with other forms of cardio.  In fact, static stretching goes against the whole purpose of warming up, as it effectively cools muscle down. People stretch with the hope it will help prevent damage and strains, but stretching cold muscles may increase your risk of injury. Repeated studies determine static stretching may also reduce your performance in the main workout because you can cause micro-tears in the muscle, decreasing power output and creating minor levels of inflammation. Static stretching is most beneficial when performed during a cool down when the muscles are warm and full of blood.

What about static stretching toward the end of a more structured cardio-based warm up? 

Static stretching while warming up is still proven to be less effective and beneficial compared to other warm-up activities. So, in my mind it is not worth the risk. Personally, I have stopped performing static stretching prior to exercise once I became more advanced in my training, and I found it problematic whenever I did.

What about dynamic stretching? 

One common feature in a warm-up is to activate key muscle groups and mobilise key joints to perform through full range of motion. In this regard, dynamic stretching can be a useful component of a warm-up. If you are going to perform dynamic stretches perform them at the end of the warm-up when the muscles are warmer. The most important caveat is if you choose to use dynamic movements in the warm-up, they should be specific to the movements you will be performing following the warm-up.

Runners typically perform dynamic movements such as high knees and butt kicks to mimic the range of motion used in hip extension. Quick feet, jumping up and down, skipping and lunges may also be used with a little bit of additional caution, especially if you are stuck in a starting line pack and can’t perform a proper warm-up.

Use Caution

The goal of the warm-up is to prepare the muscles and cardiovascular system for the intensity ahead. The goal is not specifically to restore or address problematic range of motion in joints. As athletes we should definitely spend time improving range of motion in joints and tissues because tight muscles will fatigue earlier and not give maximum power compared with pliable muscles allowed to perform through their full range of motion. 

Dynamic stretching to reduce stiffness in the muscles during a warm-up is fine if the subsequent training will involve actions requiring greater mobility. For example, it would be wise to do some dynamic mobility warmup prior to training deep squats in the gym under heavy loads.

If the activity does not require increased mobility specifically then the warm-up time could be better spent. For example, if you are about to run a race, the warm-up should be specifically focused on running. Mobility work is best saved for phases of training planned for recovery or in the cool down to address any latent issues arising from the workout. Personally, I do mobility work in a completely separate session to my running workouts. 

The worst case is not addressing mobility concerns in training and then trying to address them last-minute in a warm-up on race morning because all of a sudden you are thrust into an environment where people are warming up and you don’t want to miss out on those benefits either. While an increased range of motion could help performance, there is also a greater risk of impeding performance or injuring yourself if you use a warm-up as the time to correct a biomechanical deficiency prior to a high intensity effort. The best time to treat problems are during a cool-down session when the muscles are warm and full of blood.

 

Be Specific

A common belief is a warm-up should make you break a sweat, implying the goal is to raise core temperature. Research indicates focused warming of the specific muscles to be used following the warmup leads to better performance than just raising core temperature. Many warmup protocols focus on generalised actions intended to raise core temperature neglecting the muscles which will really be used. Best practice warm-ups should specifically engage the parts of your body you’re about to work out strenuously.

Warming up with movement imitating the training to follow is a more productive use of time and energy. This will reduce aches and stiffness by warming the musculature in the precise way it will be used following the warm-up.

The latest fitness science talks of post-activation potentiation, with the goal to “prime” an athlete by incorporating sports-specific activities using rising intensities and use of very brief high-intensity drills. There are two primary objectives to this approach:

1.    Ramping intensity to a comparable level to be used in the main workout or race.
2.    Short bursts of near maximal intensity are claimed to improve subsequent performance following the warm-up resulting in higher power output and sustained increases in strength.

You could use a generalised warm-up in the opening 10 minutes (such as spinning on an exercise bike before a running race), but the post-activation potentiation phase should be sport specific to the activity or competition coming up.

How long should the warm-up be?

You want an adequate warm-up, but you don’t want unnecessary non-functional fatigue. The general consensus is the ideal warm-up length is 20 minutes and to finish about 15 minutes before a race or high intensity workout. Athletes with high levels of fitness may need a longer warm-up before doing high-intensity workouts or short races. Athletes with lower levels of fitness will be fine with a standard warm-up time, because a longer warm-up may start to deplete energy.

If you are not racing, then you may simply start the workout at the end of the warm-up or take a few moments to gather yourself, use the toilet, shake things out for a few minutes and then get going.

 

The Warm-up Structure

The warm-up doesn’t need to be complicated, but you should give as much attention to planning the warm-up as you would give to planning the main training content itself.  The warm-up should be relevant to the main training session objectives. 

A very basic warm-up structure might involve an easy 10 mins, hard 5 mins and finished with another easy 5 mins. Another idea is to ramp the warm-up so you begin easy and finish at the maximum intensity you will be using the main workout or race.

However, the best practice is commonly moving toward the following structure:

1.    An easy lead in
2.    Ramped progressions that go through all intensity zones
3.    Quick rest
4.    Finish with very short brief maximum intensity spurts

What does this look like in practice?

Professional Cycling

Prior to a time-trial stage in a grand tour (lasting between 20-60 mins typically), an example warmup involves a 20-minute warmup structured as a ramp with some blocks of effort and some sprints. Assuming seven heart rate zones (1 being lowest intensity aerobic, 7 being highest intensity anerobic i.e.sprint) a warm-up may be structured as follows:

•    5 minutes: easy low intensity Zone 1 totally relaxed.
•    2 minutes: Intensity rise to Zone 2.
•    2 minutes; Intensity rise to Zone 3.
•    2 minutes: Intensity rise to Zone 4.
•    2 minutes: Intensity rise to Zone 5.
•    1 minute: Recover at Zone 1.
•    30 seconds: Intensity rise to Zone 6.
•    2 minutes: Recover at Zone 1.
•    3 x 10 second acceleration to max effort sprints with 1 min rest at Zone 7.

The warm-up is finished 15 minutes before the athlete commences their time-trial. 

Some people may question why you would want to perform a max-effort sprint in a warm-up prior to competition. Shouldn’t the athlete conserve all their energy? The sprints are short enough not to consume too much muscle glycogen, but they are carefully used to prepare the cyclist for maximum effort in the opening seconds of the time-trial as they accelerate to a race pace.

Running

A flat warm-up may involve something like:

•    10 minutes: easy slow-paced jog totally relaxed (e.g. 7 min km pace or 120bpm heart-rate).
•    2 minutes: increase the pace  (e.g. 5 min km pace or 130bpm heart-rate).
•    2 minutes: increase the pace  (e.g. 4:30 min km pace or 140bpm heart-rate).
•    2 minutes: increase the pace  (e.g. 3:45 min km pace or 150bpm heart-rate).
•    1 minute: easy slow-paced jog (e.g. 7 min km pace or 120bpm heart-rate).
•    30 seconds: one strides ramped to faster pace (e.g. 3:15 min km pace or 160bpm heart-rate).
•    1 minute: easy slow-paced jog (e.g. 7 min km pace or 120bpm heart-rate).
•    3 x 15 second strides, acceleration to 90%-100% of sprint pace (top speed) with 1 min rest at Zone 7 or 170bpm heart-rate (don’t sprint at max effort in the first few seconds, ease into the acceleration).

The final strides will help make race pace feel more relaxed.

Warming up for a vertical race (e.g. stair race or vertical KM) you may need to be a little more creative but conservative on steeper grades. You could perform the ramp stage of the warm-up on flat or start the warm-up walking stairs or steeper terrain, progressing to faster power hiking and then running. Don’t neglect to do the final 30 second and 7 second intervals on stairs or steeper terrain because it will have your muscles primed and ready to perform.

How to end the warm-up

One perhaps controversial tactic is to stop the warm-up at the end of the last sprint interval, because leaving some lactic acid in the legs can be quite beneficial for a shorter race since it is used partially for fuel. It serves to prime the muscle lactate system so the athlete is ready to go at full-speed from the opening moments. Some warm-ups may end with a short low intensity recovery following the sprint intervals, but we don’t want to cool down the body too much after spending time to warm it up.

 

Some final advice

If you are going to do a race with thousands of other people on the starting line, understand you may have to stand in line a lot earlier than you might want. There may also be long line ups for portaloos. If you anticipate a long wait may occur, perform an earlier warm-up away from the crowds and then try to keep your body warm while you wait by performing some on the spot dynamic movements, but try not to over expend too much energy. Maybe even practice this in training before a training run. Everyone is in the same boat in mass start races, so try not to stress too much if things aren’t as perfect as you wanted it to be. Just use the first few minutes of the race to warm back up, so don’t rush out of the blocks too fast and shock your body. Your muscles will still be a lot more primed from an earlier warm-up than from no warm-up at all, so make sure you get one in even one or two hours before if that is your only option.

On Adventures

If I’m heading out on a longer day adventure and arrive at the trailhead, often I won’t do a specific warm-up, but I will go slow and easy in the opening 20 minutes. I will begin by hiking slowly then begin to slowly ramp up my hiking pace. I will then do a few short periods of running, until I feel good to go for a harder effort. If I’m just going at a slow pace all day, I won’t bother to warm-up at all, but the first 20 minutes will always be walking (if there is any elevation gain) or a very slow jog if the terrain is flat.