By Sarah Mackay, Coach, INT1
If you have ever wondered why your coach makes you get in a cold and crowded lane at swim meets and then makes you cool down after your races when you’re exhausted, here’s why…
Athletes are always looking for ways to improve their performance. Going through a complete warm up and cool down before and after competitions and training sessions is a simple way to help maximize your performance. One can easily fall into the habit of not warming up or cooling down enough because it takes time and sometimes seems less relevant to the rest of the training program. However, pre- and post-workout exercises play a crucial role in preparing the body for activity and helping it recover fully. Let’s discuss the benefits of warm up and cool downs as we explore different types of warm ups that can be effective for athletes.
Benefits for Your Body
In the physiological sense, “warming up” means getting blood to flow to the muscles engaged in whatever exercise you are about to perform. Increased blood flow to muscles also means increased oxygen delivery to tissues and removal of carbon dioxide (waste product). Most of the benefits from warming up are related to an increase in muscle temperature. The elevation in temperature increases the dissociation of oxygen from hemoglobin (more efficient delivery of oxygen to tissues), quickens the metabolic chemical reactions resulting in more efficient cellular processes, reduces muscle viscosity (becomes less resistant to flow), increases the sensitivity of nerve receptors and increases the speed of nervous impulses (primes the body for quicker reaction through faster communication across cells). Additionally, maintaining good flexibility (range of motion around a joint) through warm up exercises has shown protective benefits by helping prevent musculoskeletal injuries related to sports.
These changes allow the muscles to move quickly and efficiently and help connect the brain with relevant motor patterns for the upcoming activity, all while minimizing injury. Of the several studies on the importance of warm up, one related to the outcome of a 100-m freestyle swimming race with or without warm up revealed significantly better performances across twenty athletes who performed their usual warm up than when they performed no warm up at all; the predominant difference was better swimming efficiency (higher distance per stroke) and faster time in the 1st lap.
On the flipside, cooling down can be extremely beneficial for maximizing your performance. When the race or workout is over, you need to prepare physically for the next one. Athletes understand that the effects of competition or training one day do not disappear the next. Since our bodies cannot magically reset overnight, cooling down is an important step in helping muscles clear lactate and other waste while loosening tight muscles. A cool-down has been shown to prevent venous pooling after exercise, or the buildup of blood in the veins. During prolonged, vigorous exercise, the blood vessels in your legs expand, meaning that more blood moves through them. Stop exercising abruptly, and that blood pools in your lower body, which can lead to dizziness or even fainting.
Science aside, cooling down just feels better after a hard competition! Since you may already know warm up and cool down are important, let’s talk more precisely about what you can do during warm up to best prepare your body for an event.
Different Types of Warm Up
There are two types of warm up that one can use prior to a competition or training: general and specific warm up.
A general warm up is comprised of tasks the whole team does together, such as jogging, steady swimming, passing, or anything that increases muscle temperature while avoiding muscle fatigue. A general warm up of long duration, low intensity (15 min, 40% VO2max) provided the best results. General warm ups will warm the muscles to a point where more specific warm up can take over. The progression of warm up should start at a low intensity and end with more specific explosive and sprint-oriented movements depending on the upcoming performance. This should all occur without dipping into the muscle’s glycogen (energy stores) or working so hard as to produce lactic acid before the competition.
Specific warm up can include exercises directly related to your race. It may include drills and technical elements that you need to polish up. This is the time to perform small segments of your performance, such as a 50m swim at the pace you want to swim a 200m race. This is also the time to include a bit of stretching, once the muscles have warmed up from general warm up. Muscles obtain their full power when they are optimally stretched—meaning there is a length at which they perform best. There are a couple methods of stretching you can try to get to your full range of motion around joints and get your muscles ready to perform.
So What’s the Verdict on Stretching?
“Old School” stretching is known as static stretching. It is passive stretching in which you move to the end range of your flexibility and stay there for about 20 seconds. This is generally better to do during cool down, when your muscles are much warmer. More commonly used prior to competing or training, dynamic stretching (sometimes referred to as ballistic or active stretching) involves the rehearsal of motor patterns that the body will make in the competition, such as swinging a leg back and forth, lunging, squatting, or even bouncing. It is not as useful for long-term development of flexibility, which should be done on one’s own, but is more useful for getting the muscles to respond fluidly to the patterns of movement. A recent study measured the difference in quadriceps strength and hamstring flexibility following a warm up that included dynamic stretching compared to one that included static stretching. It has been revealed during various studies dynamic stretching improved flexibility and eccentric peak torque while static stretching neither improved nor worsened the acute flexibility and power of the athletes. Overall, dynamic stretching helps improve an athlete’s muscular performance.
Think of warming up and cooling down as essential components to your training. The most elite athletes take these components seriously and give the necessary time and focus to prepare their bodies, whether the performance is in 30 minutes or in 2 days. Use general warm up to increase muscle temperature and then proceed with sport-specific movements to get your body sharp. Cool down after races and games for a continuous period of time to maximize your recovery. With all the training you put in, proper warm ups and cool downs will prime your body for your best performances yet!