Sid Ahamed provides a physiotherapist’s perspective on warm-up and cool-down in sprinting
Elite sprinters have long understood the necessity of warming-up, often employing a one-hour process for a sub-10 second run. When athletes of this calibre undertake such elaborate preparations their club counterparts tend to mimic them. However, is there substance to this process?
If you try to analyse the scientific literature on the process, any definitive evidence is difficult to find. However, the consensus is that a defined warm-up is an essential part of any athlete’s training methodology with the following two clear functions: injury prevention and performance enhancement.
To understand how a warm-up achieves these functions, we must first look at what we are trying to achieve. What does warming the body up actually do? Activities such as jogging, striding and performing sprint drills require muscular work. Working muscles release energy, producing heat and in addition an increased demand for nutrients and oxygen. This demand is met by the cardiovascular system increasing circulation to the contractile tissues, which in turn, further increases muscle temperature. The elastic tissues of the musculotendinous units become more flexible as their temperature increases, reducing the risk of strain and potential injury.
The latter stage of warm-up with running and sprint drills performed at near-competition speed primes the biochemical energy delivery mechanisms within the muscles and ensures the cardiovascular system is at peak efficiency. Sprint drills and fast striding trigger motor memory and the complex neural mechanisms required when an athlete performs a specific skill which ensure they are ready to execute good technique.
Therefore, we have theoretically established that by simply increasing body temperature it becomes physiologically prepared for exercise. It follows that wearing heat-retaining but non-restrictive clothing is helpful during warm-up. Using thermal or compression clothing during training helps to retain heat and prevents cool-down during interval or recovery periods.
Once the muscles are warm, stretching can be undertaken. Stretching should include both static exercises (holding still at the end of the stretch) and dynamic exercise (stretches involving movement with sprint drills often providing the perfect medium). The process should be progressive from a limited range at the start of the warm-up, when the muscles remain at normal body temperature, to full-range movements by the end when the elevated temperature improves mobility.
Equally importantly, warm-up promotes structure and discipline, providing a clear starting point to a training session or race. It allows the athlete to focus and create the necessary mindset to perform at a high level. Creating a well-trodden reproducible routine engenders confidence and affords relaxation at a critical time, particularly pre-competition, leading to improved performance.
The example below may provide a useful template:
» Phase 1: Gentle range of movement exercises
Wearing warm clothing in a sheltered area, perform your preferred stretches to two thirds of your maximal range. Static stretches should be held for only one or two seconds and dynamic stretches performed slowly.
Simple exercises to begin the warm-up phase such as standing sprint-arm action (shown, right), or high-knee walking on the spot are useful.
» Phase 2: Warming-up exercises
Once you have gently stretched any tightness out of your muscles, jog for around 800m slowly. Perform your normal sprint drills at walking speed, progressing to jogging speed.
Include drills such as high knees with sprint-arm action to work upper and lower limbs. Run at moderate speed for 800m, alternating 50m strides and progressing in speed up to 75% max pace and 50m jogging.
» Phase 3: Stretching and mobility exercises
When you are warm, repeat the initial stretches to the full range, holding static stretches at the end of range for 10-20 seconds. Ensure you stretch your upper and lower limbs and your core thoroughly.
Incorporate your dynamic stretches such as long leg swinging, standing sprint-arm action and seat-kicks (shown, right), which can be progressively increased in speed and range.
» Phase 4 Technical drills and speed running
You should now be fully warmed up and this is the phase in which to complete the technical aspects of your warm-up, performing sprint drills at high speed and working on perfect technique and finishing with rolling strides at or near competition pace. Remember to focus on smooth acceleration over 30m, fast strides for 60m and deceleration over 30-40m. You are now ready to go!
Note: The drills shown are examples of what is intended and are not deemed as being perfect technique
Cooling or warming down is often neglected. It is equally important as warming up and another part of the discipline required for performing at a high level.
The primary aim of the cool-down is to allow the body and mind to return to its resting state in a controlled manner. This is achieved by performing low-level exercise aimed at maintaining body temperature and circulation at higher than resting levels.
The increased blood-flow allows the circulation and lymphatic system to continue to remove waste products of exercise such as lactic acid and other metabolites that the muscles produce, which contribute to post-exercise stiffness. This prevents tight and sore tissues from developing and thus reduces injury risk during your next session. This process can be augmented by sports massage, altering temperature by using ice or hot baths or by wearing specialised compression or recovery clothing.
Psychologically, a cool-down allows the mind to return to its resting state and affords a period of reflection. The comfort of an often repeated procedure after a race gives the athlete a safe and positive place to retreat to mentally. By repeating phase 2 and phase 1 in reverse in appropriate clothing you will complete a structured cool-down.
» Sid Ahamed MCSP is a chartered physiotherapist and post-graduate lecturer and a former junior international 400m runner. He is the co-founder of Physio Warehouse – physiowarehouse.co.uk