A proper warmup starts your workout on the right foot, prepping both your muscles and lungs for what's to come. Once the staple of readying the body for exercise, stretching has fallen under scrutiny of late. Studies have found that static stretching, holding the stretch for 30 seconds to two minutes, is basically a wash as it neither causes nor prevents injury. And if your workout involves sprinting and jumping, slow passive stretching can result in a loss of muscle strength and power, which is no good if you're in it to win it.
So if slow, meditative stretching is out, how exactly should you warm up? Well, if soccer or any other high-intensity sport is your game, orthopedic physical therapist Colleen Birmingham, of the Running Center at CPMC in San Francisco, suggests some dynamic stretching—moves that lengthen muscles while you're in motion, like walking lunges and leg kicks. Active stretches "increase blood flow to muscles in a functional pattern of movement without impairing performance," explains Birmingham, who has a sports conditioning background.
I'm into plyometrics workouts (read: will jump when my trainer says so) and will suffer through speed drills, but the majority of my workouts fall under the low-intensity category—endurance running, cycling, and swimming. For these workouts, Birmingham reminded me that research has shown no benefits to stretching, either dynamically or statically. For this reason, Colleen recommends warming up by going "slow for the first 10 percent of your run, bike, or swim and steadily ramp up. This tactic allows your muscles to warm up so you can go the distance without wasting time and energy stretching."
However, Santa Monica-based trainer and owner of Training Adventures, Paul Vincent, likes a short dynamic warmup pre-run complete with "running drills and different muscle activations." For the seasoned Ironman triathlete, the warmup is also a time to assess the state of your body: "The objective is to not only get the body warm, but to check in and see what’s tight or sore so you can deal with that before training."
On race day, both physical therapists and trainers believe in a solid warmup before racing. A good rule of thumb, according to Birmingham, is "the shorter the race, the longer the warmup will be." She adds that, "For a 5K, you might spend 20 to 30 minutes lightly jogging, but for a half marathon you might spend just 10 minutes lightly jogging." Vincent and Birmingham agree that you should follow your pre-race cardio warmup with some dynamic stretching, which for running includes straight leg kicks to lengthen the hamstrings, butt kicks to stretch the quads, and gentle lunges to open the hips. Before hopping on your bike, Paul suggests a few simple lunge stretches and arching the back by reaching your arms overhead and behind you, essentially "to move my body in the opposite direction to the biking position."
When it comes to gym time and strength training, don't jump right into heavy lifting. At the Training Adventures gym, a session beings with a short spot of cardio of about three to five minutes, to get your blood flowing, and your treadmill or stationary bike time is followed by a "series of dynamic stretches; maybe even some body-weight squats," says Vincent.
Birmingham gives this last bit of advice, "All warmups and stretches should be pain free—listen to your body and don’t push beyond your comfort zone! Seek advice from your physical therapist, trainer, or running coach for an individualized program tailored to your fitness goals."
How do you warm up?