The best warm-up is quick and (relatively) painless. Save your energy for the race.
ABSTRACT: No two warm-ups look alike. Some are long, static, staid. Others are short and dynamic—and pull in 20 million views on YouTube, at least when they feature a young, dancing Aussie. But they all supposedly have one thing in common: A positive effect on performance. Now, researchers are saying something unexpected: A too-long warm-up may actually decrease performance. Because there’s something perverse about losing due to your pre-race routine, we have to ask: How should you be warming up?
HYPOTHESIS: The best warm-up is quick and (relatively) painless. Save your energy for the race.
METHODS: Journals are filled with warm-up studies, but few actually compare real-world routines to the tantalizing alternatives. Luckily, a study in The Journal of Applied Physiology pitted a hypothetical warm-up against a traditional routine.
Researchers compared the effects of two warm-ups on the sprint power and muscle reactions of 10 track cyclists. The traditional warm-up was based on the advice of national-level coaches and included four six-second sprints over an hour of effort. The experimental design was only 17 minutes long and included a single six-second sprint. In other words, it was easy.
Riders completed a 30-second-long sprint to test their performance and were given before-and-after tests to determine their muscles‘ force production.
RESULTS: Riders using the easier warm-up performed significantly better than those on the harder program. Specifically, their peak sprint power was 6.2 percent higher and they showed less muscle fatigue. What’s more: Riders on the traditional plan experienced a 15 percent reduction in force production, says Elias K. Tomaras, one of the study’s authors and a graduate student at the University of Calgary.
DISCUSSION: It’s true. “A ton of people warm up too intensely,” says Allen Lim, Ph.D., founder of Skratch Labs, an “active nourishment company” famous for helping train professional cyclists like Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, and Taylor Phinney. An effective warm-up increases performance by raising muscle temperature and redistributing blood flow to the muscles that need it (along with causing a host of cellular-level changes), he says. But it only takes a few minutes to harness the benefits—far less than what most people are doing. “In principal, you only need to get to the point where you break a sweat and you start to feel good,” he says.
As your warm-up goes on, you run the risk of overheating—and quashing your performance—or going through too much of your body’s energy supply, Lim says. What’s more, any exercise has the potential to reduce muscle force through fatigue, according to Tomaras. A workout that’s too long not only wastes time, but it squanders performance. “Somewhere between nothing and 12 hours is too much,” he says. The problem: Research hasn’t drawn that line yet, nor will it ever be able to for every individual in every discipline.