Almost without fail when you show up to an athletic event of any variety, (team sports, races, etc.) you will see someone with their knees completely straight trying their absolute hardest to reach their toes. They are most likely cringing as the pull on what are really tight hamstring muscles.
The Warm-Up Method Matters
A nice hamstring stretch may not be a bad thing every now and then, especially if your goal is to reach your toes with less feeling of pull in the hamstring. However, the warm-up before an athletic event is what can get you in “the zone” where you are ready to perform at your maximum. The 15-30 minutes you spend in preparation can be the difference maker in the outcome of your event. A well thought out and designed warm-up can help set the tone for a great practice or performance.
A warm-up for any athletic event needs to fulfill 3 purposes
Reduce the risk of injury
Improve performance in the event
Improve mental focus before the event
What we are seeing from more current research is that static hold stretching, usually done for anywhere from 15 to 90 seconds, is not actually effective at reducing injuries, and may in fact limit your performance. It is true that static stretching will help to improve your range of motion, however, we can see similar improvements in joint range of motion with more active mobility drills as well.
What should you be doing for your warm-up before getting into your preferred sport? In general, warm-up programming has focused around a principle called RAMP (Raise, Activate, Mobilize, and Potentiate). Basically, you are looking at breaking down your warm-up into 4 phases.
Raise: Increasing your heart rate, breathing rate and blood flow
Lower intensity activities related to the sport being performed
Activate: Use the key muscle groups that relate to your sport
Think rotator cuff, glutes, hamstring and quads, abdominals/core, etc.
Mobilize: Move joints related to the sport through their complete range of motion
Very different than static stretching, this involves moving your joints through the full range related to the sport and doing so repeatedly
Can be completed in conjunction with activation of muscles
Potentiation: Sometimes better thought of as performance
High intensity activities more related to your sport
Plyometrics, jumping, sprinting, cadence work for distance events, reactive agility drills
The RAMP system of a warm-up is much more of an active warm-up than a general static stretching protocol. It involves getting the body ready for the task at hand. All of that said, it is not wrong to add static stretching into your your regimen especially if that has been your mode of getting your mind mentally prepared for your event. However, that stretching would best be added to the beginning of the warm-up, to avoid potential detrimental effects of static stretching on performance.
A Good Warm-Up Does Reduce Injuries
The beauty in all of this is that where research was not finding benefits in stretching, and may have actually been doing some harm on performance, dynamic warm-ups (RAMP) with a neuromuscular training component have been shown to help reduce injuries, at least in team sports.
The most heavily researched programs have been done on soccer (futbol) players, and the two that I recommend the most are the FIFA 11+ and the PEP injury prevention program. Both programs follow the RAMP method for warm-up and both have been shown to reduce injuries. In fact, the FIFA 11+ warm-up has been found to reduce all injuries by 39%. In females the FIFA 11+ warm-up can help reduce anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries by 50%! That is incredible, and really speaks to how a dynamic warm-up can have a positive impact on performance and injury reduction.
For overhead athletes there are also helpful warm-ups. In a study done on handball players they found that a dynamic warm-up reduced shoulder injuries by 28%. From personal experience, I developed a warm-up program for softball players that lasts between 15–20 minutes, and according to one coach who transitioned from static stretching to the dynamic warm-up it is the “best thing we ever did.”
Implement Your Warm-Ups Early and Modify As You Go
In general some guidelines would be to start the warm-up routine before practices in the pre-season ideally for upwards of 9-10 weeks before the start of the season so that it has become routine and can be easily carried over into the season without lost time accommodating to the warm-up in season. Choose warm-up activities that can be modified to be easier or more complex depending upon your capacity and at what point you are in the season. Similar to most training procedures warm-ups can become routine and boring if they are not modified to help the athlete.
Now, all of this may seem overly complex for a coach or individual to plan and carry-out. However, there are resources available, and you can always reach out to a skilled professional to help you arrange and implement a more dynamic warm-up.
If you would like to get more information about how using a dynamic warm-up can help you or your team perform better while also reducing injuries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have suffered an injury, and are in need of rehabilitation schedule an appointment or phone consultation.
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