The Benefits of Warming Up/Down and Drills and How to do them Properly
February 15, 2022
The Benefits of Warming up and Warming Down
Last year I saw many articles and blogs talking about how there is no need to stretch or warm up before a training session.
Many of the writers were inferring that stretching before exercise was damaging but neglected to point out that there are two types of stretching, one for before (Dynamic) and one for after (Static). Static or “stretch and hold” stretching before exercise is indeed not advised.
Static stretching before exercise can weaken performance, such as sprint speed, studies have shown. The most likely reason is that holding the stretch tires out your muscles. You should warm up by doing dynamic stretches or dynamic mobility, which are like your workout but at a lower intensity. Some athletes like to include dynamic moves that mimic the workout ahead and also use the warm up to increase their heart rate, build muscle activation and heat in other ways.
During the Olympics some triathletes warmed up on a turbo before their swim as their way to get their heart rate up and muscles primed to get active right from the gun!
The British Triathlon coaching team are experimenting with the theory that muscles store heat like batteries store power so warming up well will enable the body to stay warmer for longer in cold water starts until the athlete gets up to full racing speed.
For triathlon distances up to Olympic distance studies have shown a 3% improvement of performance after a good warm up and 79% showed improvements according to Laura Needham, Co-Head of Physiology at English Institute of Sport. So based on this it's well worth warming up!
For longer distances such as IRONMAN a long warm up will burn up glycogen and this will need to be replenished which is possible over the longer distances.
The warm up also prepares you mentally for the session ahead and has proven to help prevent injury plus it's thought to help with technique, skill and coordination.
Muscles like to work at 36 degrees Celsius and it's been proven that you can use more oxygen after a warm up. Temperature plays an important role in the way your muscles contract. It's a lot more difficult for muscles to contract in cold weather as opposed to warmer conditions. The temperature affects how easily oxygen is released from hemoglobin to the muscle. In colder weather, the rate that oxygen is released is slower.
What should a warm up look like?
Ideally your warmup should include all of the basic primal movement patterns: Squat, Lunge, Push, Pull, Bend, Twist and Gait.
Examples of good dynamic warm up stretches / mobility movements are:
Arm swings, Hip Twists, and Dynamic Side Lat Stretches. You could even throw in some Burpees!
Leg swings, air squats, lunges, walking quad stretch, walking knee hugs, hip circles, lateral lunges and shoulder rolls.
Ankle rolls, Lateral lunges, air squats, butt kicks, high knees, single leg dead lift, lateral leg swings, bent knee forward swing and hamstring sweep
These are not an extensive list but will give you some ideas of dynamic mobility movements. You should aim to warm up for at least 5-10 minutes.
The Use of Drills in a Warmup
Along with dynamic stretches every workout should include drills and if you choose the correct ones can be a cheeky way to add in some strength, conditioning, flexibility, mobility and stability which is very important for triathlete’s and all endurance athletes but can fall by the wayside if you have a busy life schedule. According to Oli Williamson, Senior Physiotherapist British Triathlon, drills can be an important and effective way to inject more S&C in to your weekly training schedule. This is particularly important to gain robustness, elasticity and strength in the foot and ankle for running power.One drill he recommends is "ankling" which is good for speed loading.
You can perform some very beneficial drill before your swimming, cycling and running.
Examples of drills are:
Swimming drills are well known and accepted (you can see a full list of swimming drills here) and here are a few of my favourites and why you should do them:
6/1/6: Helps develop your alignment, posture, and catch set up position while introducing a stroke. To do this do 6 kicks on the side with your head facing the bottom of the pool (superman), take one stroke and then rotate on to the other side, breathe and do 6 kicks on the other side. This is commonly done with fins. Try to keep your body at right angles to the bottom of the pool.
Scull # 1: This drill improves your initial catch and feel for the water. Scull with both arms symmetrically just wider than your shoulders and back into the middle, changing angle of hands, keeping pressure on the water, fingertips about 30cm below surface and lower than wrist lower than elbow lower than shoulder, chin on the surface, with pull buoy to isolate your arms.
New Doggy Paddle: This is a powerful drill for developing feel for the water and bent elbow catch, rhythm and timing plus keeping your hand in line with shoulder throughout catch and pull phase. Using a pull buoy, alternate the catch and pull strokes through to the hip, recovering underwater, extend and catch in line with your shoulder by tipping the wrist and bending your elbow, no pauses.
Kick & Pulls: The top and bottom of your pedal stroke are the toughest points to maintain tension in your drivetrain. Kick and pulls reinforce your ability to maintain tension through the weakest points in your pedal stroke.
To kick and pull, lightly kick your toes into the fronts of your shoes as your knee approaches the top of your pedal stroke. As you move through the pedal stroke and your foot approaches the very bottom of the circle, lightly pull your heels into the backs of your shoes almost like your scraping something from the bottom of your foot. To complete this drill, focus on the kicking motion for 30-60 seconds and then the pulling motion for an additional 30-60 seconds. When you feel good about both motions, combine them for an additional 30-60 second interval.
Isolated Leg Training (ILT) or Single Leg Drill: Isolated leg training (ILT) is another indoor cycling drill designed to help you balance out your pedal stroke and pedal more efficiently. Instead of focusing on the top and bottom of each pedal stroke, this drill has you home in on each individual leg to develop neuromuscular coordination.
One-legged pedalling will primarily prevent you from compensating for an inefficient pedal stroke with your other leg and force you to both push and pull with the same leg at the same time.
This type of drill can be done either out on the open road or on a turbo trainer, arguably working best on the latter.
To perform ILT drills, start by unclipping one foot. You can prop your foot up on a chair or leave it hovering away from your pedal. With the opposite foot still clipped in, start pushing the pedal. Begin with a low cadence and relatively low gear, focus on maintaining consistent tension through your pedal stroke. Don’t worry about power during this drill. Naturally, your power will be lower without the help of your other leg. Do this for between 30-seconds and 1-minute to start with. You may find if it’s your first time doing this drill that your pedal stroke will be quite clunky.
You may notice a dead spot in your pedal stroke signified by a knocking sound—typically at the top or bottom of the pedal stroke. Either slow down or focus on the kick and pull technique to maintain tension if this happens. Switch legs anytime your active leg feels very fatigued. As you progress with these drills, you’ll be able to push higher cadences.
Whilst you might find it difficult to perform a single revolution in a smooth fashion at first, stick with it and it won’t be long before you notice big improvements and start to reap the benefits. If there’s one leg that’s worse than the other, give more attention to that.
What’s great is that this kind of drill can be integrated into any ride, whether it’s a quick spin on the trainer or a long endurance ride. Try to do one or two sessions each week to maintain this ability and challenge yourself to extend the duration of each drill week on week.
Force Intervals: Force intervals are intended to help you generate power at a low cadence. To complete this drill, find a gear that still allows you to hit your target power while spinning a cadence between 50 and 60 pm. When doing this drill, focus on the top and bottom of your pedal stroke by kicking over the top and pressing your foot downwards. If you have any pain or issues with your knees, feel free to skip this drill altogether.
High Knees:This classic drill accentuates the running position, which builds up your calves, hamstrings, and glutes with more power for a typical run. This drill also helps you turn over more quickly, increasing your speed, so High Knees are really great for both form and speed.
Carioca: Although a bit more complicated to get the hang of Carioca drills drastically improve your range of motion in the hips and between the arms and legs. As you cross your right foot in front of the left foot, shift the weight to the ball of your right foot. Once you move back to the starting position, cross the right foot behind the left, shifting the weight to the ball of the right foot.
Knee drive to hip hinge (Arabesue): This is great for single leg activation, ankle stability, glute activation and overall balance. Start on one leg and drive the other knee up to 90 degrees and balance. Then bend forward and drive that same knee backwards and extend out straight behind you. Your body should now be parallel to the ground and your leg out straight behind you. Stop for a 1-2 seconds then return to knee drive and step out forward. Swap legs and repeat, stepping forward every time. Do this for about 10m then jog back to the beginning.
I like to use the term warm down rather than cool down as you ideally want to bring your heart rate down gradually to normal but never cold.
If you have had a particularly strenuous or high interval training session, then your heart rate will be very high so just stopping is never a good thing and in extreme circumstances could cause blood pooling. The warm down should last between 3 to 10 minutes and should be gradual and then include static stretches and you may choose to foam roller to help with muscle soreness.
A good example of a stretch routine after your run is from the run experience.
Some athletes like to use a foam roller as part of their warm down to help with muscle soreness. The benefits of foam rolling include:
- Relieves Muscle Tension
- Improves your Range of Motion
- Increased Blood Flow
- Speeds up Recovery
- Improves our Posture
- Reduces your Risk of Injury
This is a great follow along foam roller routine for cyclists.
Heel Raises (Calf Raises)
Just like with the drills before our session we can throw in some small strength exercises to the end of our workouts to “stack” habits, so we never forget our strength work. I wrote about habit stacking in an article for TrainingPeaks.
One higher effective strength “snack” is heel raises at the end of a run. Training your calves is particularly important to build calf strength, endurance, and explosiveness. It's great for improving ankle stability and overall balance. Calf raises are also excellent for stretching the plantar muscles of the foot and making it more supple. If you have ever suffered from Plantar Fasciitis, you will know that anything that prevents this pain is a great thing.
Calf raises are very simple, and studies have shown if you can complete 15 single leg raises on your left and right legs three times through your calf’s are “marathon ready”.
- Calves raises stabilize your feet and ankle
Calf raises help in stabilizing your calves and feet–ensuring you have proper balance.
- Your entire lower body performance depends on the strength of your calf muscles
Have you ever tried doing weighted squats and failed? Or have you ever felt muscle spasms in your lower body after doing even a little bit of cardio? Well, calf raises can help you do all that and more. Calf exercises can help heighten your lower body performance in leaps and bounds.
- Runners, if you want to increase your speed then do calf raises
How light you are on your feet, how long your strides are, and how your foot lands on the ground–all these things are very important for running. Strong calf muscles–courtesy calf raises–can help you.
- Calf raises help prevent injury
If you have ever run a marathon then there is no need to explain the aftermath of it. The soreness that you bear can be a little much–so much so that even doing basic things can be a problem. That’s why while you train for an event like this, you should do calf exercises before hitting the ground.
- Calf raises are also good for your joints
Most of us report knee pain after doing just a few sets of burpees. And guess what? Your weak calves are the reason behind it. When you vertically jump and land while completing a burpee, it can impact your knee joints–especially if you don’t land properly. The same logic also applies to running on a treadmill.
How to do a Single Leg Calf Raise
Like the double leg calf raise, keep your feet pointing straight ahead, push up onto your toes as high as you can through your big toe more than the outside toes, using one leg at a time. If you roll out on your foot and ankle you will feel the outside of your calf work. When pushing through the big and 2nd toe your foot and ankle stay in a squarer position and you will feel the middle and inside of your calf more.
Keep your knee locked out straight. If front on to the table or wall lean more on the opposite hand. If side on use the opposite hand to lean and balance with. Feel the burn in the upper half of your calf (Gastrocnemius) in the middle not just the outside.
The next part of this exercise is to work the lower part of the leg by bending your knee roughly 30 degrees, which will activate your Soleus muscle more allowing you to feel the burn on the lower half of your calf.
A good friend of mine, Leo Wouters, who was one of the physical therapists at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo for the marathon running teams said that you should never lower the heel lower than the floor, so I always advise not to do these on a step. His theory is that it can impact explosive power derived from the Achilles tendon when running.
As you can see there’s a lot of reasons to ensure you warm up and warm down properly and it can not only prepare you for your sessions, but you can add in some strength, mobility, stability and flexibility into your sessions for free!
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Karen Parnell is a Level 3 British Triathlon and IRONMAN Certified Coach, NASM Personal Trainer and Sports Technology Writer.
Effects of prior warm-up regime on severe-intensity cycling performance
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