To Warm Up Or Not to Warm Up

Editor’s Note: George Frazier, manager at CentreTown Fitness in Wheeling, and his staff are providing a series of training articles leading up to the 38th annual Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic, scheduled for Saturday in Wheeling. Jared Estock of CentreTown Fitness has a doctorate in physical therapy.

Many Americans so often forget the benefits of a warm-up prior to engaging in exercise. In fact, warming up prior to moderate or strenuous exercise is a general recommendation made for those involved in fitness programs or athletic events. A review of studies was completed in 1972 that showed 53 percent of studies supported the proposition that warm-up was better than no warm-up, 7 percent the opposite and 40 percent found no difference between the two.

Obviously, this raised many concerns in the athletic community as to whether a warm-up was necessary. Many athletes feel that a warm-up would make them too tired and hinder their actual performance. Therefore, many athletes started to stretch prior to an athletic event.

Here is where research has taken a strong hold on clearing the murky waters of increased performance and benefits of a warm-up. Research breaks the benefits into three categories: Physiological, psychological and safety related.

Physiological benefits include less muscle resistance and faster enzymatic reactions at high body temperatures. This can lower the oxygen deficits at the onset of work and cause a favorable shift in the lactate threshold. What does all the exercise and medical jargon mean? Improved performance at a muscular and chemical level in the body. These benefits actually allow reactions in the body to occur faster and reach an efficient work rate faster, in return, improving your athletic performance.

Psychological benefits include increasing mental stimulation and provide the optimal mental set for improved performance. This is accomplished through release of endorphins which are naturally produced opioids from the pituitary gland. These act as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, meaning these make you feel good. Endorphins are naturally released during exercise and after eating certain foods.

The main safety benefit is decreased risk of injury during an athletic event. This is achieved by increasing the blood flow to the primary muscles groups involved in exercise. This in turn decreases muscle resistance as stated above and reduces the risk of contractile injury, such as a pulled muscle.

Stretching is a controversial subject. There is very little research evidence that supports stretching is beneficial prior to an athletic event in terms of increased performance and decreased risk of injury. Stretching will improve range of mobility and flexibility of an athlete over time.

However, this type of stretching should occur separate from an athletic event. Stretching is only beneficial in an event that requires flexibility. Some examples include certain gymnastic events and the goalie position in hockey. There is research that actually suggests a decrease in athletic performance with stretching prior to an event such as lifting.

A recommended warmup of about 50 percent of your maximal effort for 5-10 minutes is sufficient at preparing the body for exercise. This should be followed by more than 5 minutes of recovery. This can be a power walk or a combination of dynamic movements specific to an athletic event.

In summary, warm-up activities can be identical to performance, directly or indirectly related to performance. Warm-up causes both physiological and psychological changes that are all beneficial.