By Dr Adam Simon

Why do we need to warm up before exercise?

We all know that warming up before exercise is important. We see professionals do it all the time before a big match or race.

It can be all too easy to treat the warm-up as just something we get out of the way before the real fun starts. However, be warned - getting this right is vital if you want to perform at your best. Let's take a look at some of the key reasons why warming up is so essential.

Look after your heart

It's important to warm up correctly, and this starts with getting your heart ready for the task ahead. Many people think that stretching is the most important part of the warm up, but it's vital to do five to ten minutes of light cardiovascular exercise first to increase your heart rate and get the blood pumping around your body.

If you were to launch straight into your workout, race or match, this would put a lot of pressure on your heart. It's much better to prepare it gradually for the effort ahead and give your body some time to adjust to the increased need for oxygen you'll experience as you exercise.

Reduce your risk of muscle or soft tissue injury

Now it's time to start stretching. The most obvious benefit of a warm up is that you're less likely to get injured. A 2006 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport showed that a good warm-up can decrease the risk of injury if done correctly, and it's an area that sports scientists and physiotherapists are constantly reevaluating to ensure athletes can continue operating at their peak.

Athletes dread any muscle or soft tissue injury, as this can result in a long period of inactivity and rehabilitation. As well as your cardio, a good warm-up consists of another 20 minutes of stretching to get your body in the best shape possible to counteract this risk.

Keeping your muscles warm makes soft tissue more supple, meaning you're less likely to suffer a tear while twisting and turning and your chance of pulling or tweaking a muscle is reduced. You'll also notice that a proper warm-up means your muscles are less stiff the next day.

It's important to focus your stretches on the muscles you'll need most for your upcoming activity. So, if you're playing football, you'll need to give more attention to your legs, while a game of tennis or basketball requires greater focus on your arms and shoulders.

Encourage blood flow to your muscles

Blood is essential for your muscles to work properly, particularly at the higher level of demand you're expecting during exercise.

Ligaments and tendons are more flexible when there is more blood flowing through them, as the surrounding fluid is at the right consistency to help your joints move easily. Think of it as a process similar to oiling a wheel or door hinge - everything works better and doesn't creak!

Getting more blood to your muscles also means giving them more nutrients, and this is important for energy production.

You can achieve all this much more effectively (and decrease your injury risk) with dynamic stretching. This involves slowly putting your body through the sort of movements you'll be making during your workout, rather than doing all your stretches on the spot - otherwise known as static stretching. For example, a footballer would benefit from this dynamic leg warm-up.

Prepare yourself mentally

A good warm-up will get you in the mood to compete and will mean you're not sluggish when the real action gets underway. Don't forget, you've got half an hour to prepare your body, so why not also take the time to get your mind in the right place too?

Visualise yourself succeeding as you get those muscles warmed up, and you'll find you have much more left in the tank when the going gets tough later on.

This is another reason to favour dynamic stretching over static stretching. While dynamic stretching gets you in the mood to exercise, static stretching is more relaxing. That's why it's useful for practices such as yoga, but it's no good if you're planning on being competitive.

Increase your performance levels

The bottom line for any athlete, whether casual or competitive, is whether or not something will improve their performance.

In 2010, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggested that warming up correctly increased the performance levels of athletes by as much as 79%.

However, it's important to remember that all the benefits you get from your warm up are undone if you're ready too early. The effects will only last for around half an hour, so if the start of your workout, race or match is delayed for some reason, you'll need to warm up again.

What about the warm-down?

While we know the warm-up is important, how often do you warm down after a workout? It's often neglected, but it's actually very important to gradually return your body to its normal state, rather than stopping suddenly.

A simple five-minute jog is a good start, followed by some static stretching (remember earlier when we discussed how this can help the body relax?). This will help slowly return your heart rate to its resting level, while it'll also get rid of waste products such as lactic acid, which is what's making your muscles sore in the days after you exercise.

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