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Warming to the Task

Is touching your toes out of touch with modern thinking on warming up?

Steve Ovett, a multiple world record holder and 800m gold medalist at the 1980 Moscow Olympics once famously eschewed the entire warming up process one night in the late 1970s when about to compete against the best middle distance runners in the world. He said it was already too warm for his liking and that it would therefore only expend valuable energy.

Controversial at the time but perhaps sound judgement.

The whole purpose of warming up is to help the body deliver oxygen and blood flow to the exercising muscle groups. It also increases body temperature (hence ‘warming up’), which reduces the chance for muscle and tendon injuries.

From a very young age, despite the elasticity of youth, we are all encouraged to warm up before exercise. If the benefits don’t truly demonstrate themselves in our younger years they certainly do in adulthood. I went four years without playing football through university and my first year of full-time work. Then having matured into a fairly fit but non-footballing graduate, my comeback was almost instantly aborted when I suffered a significant quad tear before we even kicked off! From that day onwards, I fully recognised the value of what I’d been taught as a kid.

I should have listened to Tim Grover, basketball superstar Michael Jordan’s personal trainer since 1989 when he said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that stretching prevented a lot of injuries for Michael, especially as he got older,” in an interview that has been widely quoted. 

The standard way, taught by numerous football coaches, was to stretch the four main muscle groups in your legs – quads, calves, hamstrings and groins. But then a friend who represented Singapore at football and once played against Brazil in a friendly, shared his experience in discussing the matter with one of their players, a former World Cup winner.

“I notice you guys didn’t stretch,” said my friend, when they all got together after the game.

“Race horses don’t stretch. Neither do we,” said the Brazilian.

What race horses actually do is ease themselves into action. Walking, trotting and cantering, all before the big gallop. It turns out that modern-day thinking on the subject is not only equine in nature, but quite logical too. 

If you are cold, then transition straight into a stretch, you’re putting quite a load on those cold muscles. You’re likely stretching yourself far more than you will at any stage through most of any exercise you’re about to begin.

If you spectate at a professional football match today, you’re unlikely to see players stretch until after the match is over, as part of their warm down. And yet subtle stretching does take place as part of match preparation. In this sense it’s important to understand that there are two types of stretching.

Dynamic stretching encompasses movement-based stretches designed to prepare the muscles for the most common movements in a sport. For a footballer this might include high knees, butt kicks, and an “open and close the gate” groin stretch. This is why the Brazilian warm up routine is a choreographed affair that is more akin to dancing than traditional preparation for a game of football. For swimmers, dynamic stretches might include jumping jacks, arm circles or lunges. 

Static stretches are stationary stretches where athletes hold a challenging yet comfortable position for a certain period of time. This is what many of us likely think of in terms of traditional stretching. Touching your toes for a nice hamstring stretch or pulling your heal to your butt for a full quad stretch are examples of common static stretches.

Dynamic stretching and static stretching serve different purposes and, therefore, should be performed with different objectives in mind. Dynamic stretching is commonly thought to be better for warming up, while static stretching (as the muscles are already warm enough to execute and hold a challenging stretch) is better for cooling down. 

It’s now thought that static stretching before sport or a workout can decrease balance, stability and reaction time ,resulting in lower performance levels. Conversely after a dynamic stretching session, muscles and joints are found to have been looser and more capable of using their body’s full range of motion for extra power. This is also said to improve coordination and motor skills.

The primary benefit of static stretching is increased range of motion in the joints which is helpful to prevent injury and alleviate tight muscles. This is why we always see photographs of Michael Jordan stretching out those long limbs of his. Range of motion stretches are important for injury prevention, and it’s therefore a good idea to incorporate these in your routine, once the performance aspect of your workout or game is over – a warm down. 

Gradually, as muscles demonstrate less resistance to the stretch, they are able to stretch even further without injury.

It’s worth remembering that heart and lungs respond to a good warm up as much as your calves or hamstrings. The idea that you’ll be ok once you get your ‘second wind’ is pertinent here. You might be familiar with the experience of breathing very hard during the first few moments of an aerobic sport, such as football, only to have things gradually ease and a greater level of comfort set in after three or four minutes.

This is because while you’ve been warming up your muscles, you haven’t properly prepared your heart and lungs for the surge in activity that they’re about to experience. Once your legs are ready, a couple of lengthy sprints (or something similar) will help you get over that uncomfortable first few minutes of cut and thrust, ahead of the referee blowing his whistle for the start of the game.
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