Murphy’s Lore Warm up to warming up, says Sam
Picture a start line in the final minutes before the gun. Whether it’s an Olympic track, a big-city marathon or the Little Codswollop 5K, you’ll see runners putting the final torso-twisting, quad-stretching touches to their race preparation. And quite right, too: the warm-up – for that is what we’re talking about here – plays a supporting role in efficient running performance, helping to gear you up metabolically, physiologically and psychologically. In a recent review of 32 studies, the majority found that a warm-up of some kind improved exercise performance compared with no warm-up. Setting off without one is like putting the gas on under the pan before you’ve even chopped your vegetables.
But spy on the average running-club meeting on a Tuesday evening – not to mention many a solo-runner’s jaunt – and you’ll find the all-important warm-up is dispensed with. It is absent even, dear reader, from team RW’S lunchtime outings to Hyde Park. Just as I’m about to start my sun salutations and preparatory drills, my colleagues’ GPSS lock on and they disappear round the corner at eight-minute-mile pace.
So why is it that something considered so valuable on race day is reduced to nothing more than ‘I’ll shuffle from foot to foot while my Garmin finds a signal’ at all other times? If it helps to improve performance, surely it shouldn’t be saved for special occasions only? So I gathered up some excuses from my running buddies – ‘It’d eat into my running time’, ‘I always forget when I’m on my own’, ‘I don’t want to use up all my energy’.
I don’t buy any of it. For me, a warm-up is as much a part of the run as watching the trailers is a part of a visit to the cinema. It’s not the main event, but the whole experience is more complete and satisfying with it.
Perhaps it’s all in my head. Sport psychologists have noted the value of pre-performance rituals – a sequence of events that you always run through in the same order, the completion of which signals to your body and mind that you’re ready to perform. One study found that establishing and using such a routine had a major impact on performance. Why? Maybe because the actions narrow the beam of your attention to the task at hand. Or perhaps because you give yourself space to mentally rehearse the act you’re about to perform, rather than simply doing it, which helps to hone your skill.
When it comes to the claim that a warm-up will help you avoid injuries, the water is murkier. It’s certainly something I’d stand by – and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence – but studies that have attempted to find a correlation between warming up and reduced injury rates have been inconclusive ( partly, perhaps, because the warm-ups included in the research encompass a large and disparate range of actions, some of which may hinder more than they help). But a study published in the Journal of Bone and joint research recently found that when high-impact forces are involved (think running, not walking), calf muscle tears are more likely when muscle temperature is lower ( less than 32C), leading the researchers to stress the importance of warming up.
As far as I’m concerned, one of the most compelling reasons to warm up is that it makes the run feel much easier – bypassing the toxic 10 minutes I otherwise endure if I try to run before I’ve walked. ‘ But you can warm up on the run!’ I hear you argue. Yes, it’s true that taking the first mile or two slowly will allow your heart rate, body temperature and breathing rate to climb gently, but is it the best way to get your muscles firing and your brain onside? I think not. Just do it. But warm up first.