"Do your stretches and make sure you're warmed up". It was a ritual reinforced by PE teachers and coaches before we swam, ran or took to the football field. Warming up is something many of us take for granted, but when it comes to improving performance or preventing injury, research has raised questions about the effectiveness of these pre-exercise routines. Take stretching, for example. Remember all those times you were asked to bend over and touch your toes? Turns out that might not have been doing you much good. So what does help? Whether you're wondering how to prepare for a weights session or whether you have to warm down after a run, here's the latest.
What you need to know about static stretches When Gary Cairnduff became a physiotherapist nearly 30 years ago, one of his patients was an experienced competitive cyclist. When this cyclist saw a competitor stretching before a race, he assumed they had an injury. It was a "sign of weakness" — and he made a point to target them. This attitude may seem a little extreme, but he might have been right to be sceptical. Static stretches — like bending over for 10 seconds and trying to touch your toes — have been a mainstay of warm-ups for years. But Mr Cairnduff says they might not actually be useful in improving performance or preventing injuries. One research review published in 2008 concluded there was "moderate-to-strong evidence that routine application of static stretching will not reduce overall injury rates on the basis of the work that has been undertaken". There may be an exception for injuries to tendons and ligaments, which were found to be reduced by static stretching routines in three of the seven studies reviewed, but the research is far from conclusive. But Mr Cairnduff says there is one area where static stretching can help you improve: flexibility. So, if you're involved in a sport like diving or gymnastics, where flexibility is important, these exercises can still be a useful part of your warm-up routine. What about dynamic stretches? Dynamic stretches take your body through the full range of a functional movement.
An example would be a leg swing, which involves moving your leg forward and backwards while holding onto something for support. The efficacy of dynamic stretches in preventing injury has not been widely studied, but there's some preliminary evidence suggesting they might improve performance in some sports, says James Alexander, a physiotherapist based in Newcastle who has researched injury prevention strategies for runners. "If someone was undertaking a running event, I'd certainly advise a warm-up that involves dynamic stretches," he says. "There has been reported performance benefits to taking an active warm-up, and the evidence for static stretching with regards to performance or reduced injury risk is just not there." What you need to know about warming up While there's not a lot of evidence to suggest warm-ups reduce injury risk, it doesn't mean they're completely unhelpful. Some people find warming up helps them get in the right frame of mind for exercise, others simply enjoy it. How long you need to warm up — and what you should be doing — depends on the activity and your fitness level, Mr Alexander says. The goal is to gradually build up intensity and prepare your body for what comes next. When he's going for a leisurely jog, Mr Alexander will often run out the door without any warm-up at all. During the first few minutes, he'll gradually increase his pace and intensity. If he was preparing for a time trial, race or interval session, he'd do a warm up involving five to 10 minutes of dynamic stretches like butt kicks and knee raises and some short "run-throughs". "I'm going to finish that warm-up with three efforts, where I'm running at the pace I want to hit over a short distance. It might be my goal 5K pace, or my goal half-marathon pace," he says. If you're doing resistance training, the principles are the same, Mr Alexander says. You might warm up with bodyweight exercises like lunges and squats, working your way up until you reach your desired weight for your first set. As a general rule, you want to warm up until the point of a "light sweat", Mr Alexander says. It's a sign you've got your body moving and are not yet at the point of fatigue. Remember, though, there's not a lot of evidence to suggest your warm-up routine will prevent injuries. Do we need to warm down after exercise? While warming up is about preparing our bodies for training or an event, warming down, the accepted wisdom goes, is about recovery. It's about gradually winding down. If you have played a game of football or run five kilometres, it might be a few minutes of walking once you've finished.
Warming down can help remove blood lactates, a by-product of exercise that has been associated with fatigue. However, it's still not clear whether this is of any practical benefit. A recent review of research found warming down is unlikely to prevent injuries or improve performance when exercise is repeated on the same day or the following day. The review also found active warm-downs were "generally not effective for reducing delayed-onset muscle soreness following exercise". Given it's unlikely that warming down will have a great impact, there's no need to beat yourself up if you're not doing it. On the flip side, if you're getting something out of your warm-downs, there's no reason to stop. Article from ABC Life