By Chris Miller
While the term “warm-up” may suggest activity that is one-dimensional in nature and singular in purpose, this could not be further from the truth. In order to sufficiently prepare athletes for the rigor of training, warm-ups must be multi-faceted and designed to address both the general and specific physical demands that will be encountered in that training. Therefore, it is critical that warm-ups are as well-reasoned and purposefully constructed as the training programs they precede.Warm-ups must be as well-reasoned and purposefully constructed as the training program they precede. Click To Tweet
General Objectives of the Warm-Up
All warm-ups need to have general objectives, and these objectives are fourfold: increasing core temperature, preparing the cardiovascular system, stimulating the nervous system, and screening athlete movement. All of these ultimately serve to enhance performance and reduce injury risk.
Increase of Core Temperature
As the primary general objective of the warm-up, increasing core temperature stimulates a cascade of physiological and biochemical responses that contribute to increased performance. When looking at determinants of performance, the two elements we typically think of are metabolic systems and neural systems. The metabolic systems are energy-producing pathways for both explosive and enduring activity, whereas neural and neuromuscular systems affect the qualitative and quantitative measures of movement skill acquisition and execution.
The Bohr effect is one such metabolic mechanism associated with increased body temperature. This effect describes the temperature-facilitated decrease in the oxygen affinity of hemoglobin and myoglobin, the molecules in blood that bind respiratory gases. As a result, oxygen more readily dissociates from hemoglobin and is more efficiently delivered to working muscles, while more carbon dioxide is cleared from them, ultimately allowing increased work capacity and fatigue resistance. Further, by facilitating enzyme activity, increased body temperature increases the rate of nearly all metabolic reactions in the body, including those that catabolize macromolecules used as substrates in bioenergetic pathways.
Temperature is also known to influence the mechanical properties of muscle, with warmer muscles displaying less stiffness and more elasticity, a beneficial effect for speed and power athletes for whom large, quickly generated forces are key. Heat also acts to increase the conduction rate of nervous impulses, which, in turn, allows a higher frequency of impulses to be sent to a muscle, resulting in greater force production in a given unit of time. Finally, increased body temperature up-regulates the body’s thermoregulatory mechanisms. While slightly increased body temperature is beneficial for performance, large increases are detrimental to both performance and health.
Preparation of the Cardiovascular System
We have all felt our hearts pounding after a strenuous bout of exercise. This occurs because working muscles produce carbon dioxide, the increased partial pressure of which triggers the up-regulation of cardiorespiratory activity, in order to meet an increasing muscular demand for oxygen. In addition to the aforementioned Bohr effect, the body fulfills this demand by increasing heart rate and contractility. By beating harder and faster, the heart circulates more oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, allowing for the efficient continuation of ATP synthesis and metabolite buffering.
Stimulation of the Nervous System
Paramount for speed and power athletes, adequately preparing the nervous system to fire on all cylinders, when desired, is a critical role of the warm-up. Increasing body temperature, a previously mentioned objective, acts to increase the conduction rate of nervous impulses, which, in turn, allows a higher frequency of impulses to be sent to a muscle, resulting in greater force production in a given unit of time. Further, stimulation and activation of specific motor patterns and firing sequences at lower intensities prepares an athlete to utilize these pathways in higher intensity activities.Adequately preparing the nervous system to fire on all cylinders is a critical role of the warm-up. Click To Tweet
The nervous system’s role is also psychological. The warm-up is an opportunity to “set the tone” of a training session, with regard to desired arousal levels for a given session.
Whether an athlete is moving exceptionally well or exceptionally poorly, an individual too far outside of their own norms may be more prone to injury. Utilization of the same warm-up elements daily allows the establishment of individual performance bandwidths, or baselines, by which readiness can be judged. We refer to this as the Living Movement Screen, a concept expanded upon in the ALTIS Essentials Course.
Specific Objectives of a Warm-Up
In our world, specific preparation, whether in reference to a warm-up or a periodized block of training, means one thing: preparing an athlete to sprint. The following modules were composed with exactly that in mind and consider observed trends in energy leaks and injury types, rates, and causes in elite sprint athletes. The four modules of the ALTIS sprints warm-up are Torso Activation, Dynamic Mobility, Dynamic Flexibility, and Sprint Drills.
What we do: A series of ground-based drills such as cat-camel, side-lying thoracic rotations, and plank variations.
Why we do it: It is important to move through all ranges of motion in warm-up to mitigate injury risk during high-intensity activity.
Whether intentional or not, aberrant mechanics and compensations happen when sprinting and can include any of these movements. If the body is unfamiliar with these ranges and has never been in them, injury is far more likely. Further, the shoulders (thoracic spine rotation dependent) must be able to undulate and oscillate in harmony with the hips (lumbar spine rotation dependent) to produce smooth and efficient movement. This cannot be achieved if thoracic or lumbar spine are not moving freely.
Inguinal shutter mechanism: The inguinal canals are musculoaponeurotic arches attached to the transverse abdominis (both), transversalis fascia (deep), and internal oblique (superficial). These openings in the anterior abdominal wall are particularly prone to intestinal displacement with increased intra-abdominal pressure. Contraction of the transverse abdominis and internal oblique causes these inguinal rings to contract, protecting the integrity of the inguinal canals and preventing hernias.
Importance of core musculature in spinal and pelvic stability and postural integrity: Deep core muscles (transverse abdominis, psoas, multifidus, pelvic floor) play an important role in stabilizing the pelvis and spine. Proper pelvic position, segmental stability, and posture are critical to enable attainment of proper sprint positions. Superficial core muscles, such as the rectus abdominis and external obliques, help to stabilize the spine when high forces are encountered and also help to create torque that contributes to overall force production.
What we do: A series of locomotive drills cued to be performed rhythmically with large ranges of motion such as skips and side shuffles.
Why do it: To improve and work through full, active range of motion.
We lose capacity for free and coordinated movement in ranges of motion that we do not use often and intentionally. Such restrictions would make injury far more likely, given that many common aberrations, by definition, occur outside of what we might consider ideal mechanics. From a motor learning standpoint, this limits the degrees of freedom that elite performers are cognitively equipped to explore.
Move through varied planes of motion: Gross displacement in sprinting is largely sagittal in nature, but this does not mean that sprinting is a sagittal movement. When observed in relation to the body axis of the individual, it becomes clear that lateral and rotational movements occur as well. Upon further inspection, it becomes apparent that rotation, undulation, and oscillation, in appropriate amounts, are all absolutely necessary for generating torque that contributes to speed. Additionally, the lateral chain plays a large role in stabilizing linear/sagittal movement. Generally, robust movement capability enhances performance and decreases the likelihood of injuries, so even with athletes for whom running in a straight line is the goal, it is important to regularly perform work through all planes of motion.Regularly perform work through all planes of motion even if the goal is running in a straight line. Click To Tweet
Alternating ground-based and locomotive modules: Sprint athletes tend to have short attention spans. With two modules, or 24 exercises, consisting mainly of ground-based activities, it is unlikely the athletes would stay engaged and moving purposefully if we were simply to progress from ground to standing/moving, rather than alternating them. As Coach Dan Pfaff says, we protect mechanical integrity like it’s gold, and we find this is an important organizational consideration in our effort to help athletes maintain attention and intention in all that we do.
What we do: A series of stationary, multi-planar leg swings and active-isolated stretches.
Why we do it: To improve and work through the full range of motion.
The use of momentum in these drills allows movement through a greater range of motion than in the Dynamic Mobility section. The Dynamic Flexibility series also engages the stretch reflex as the body attempts to prevent movement beyond safe/familiar ranges.
Prevent loss of tone: Quick movements and short holds allow muscles to achieve lengthened positions while avoiding autogenic inhibition via the Golgi tendon organs, which decrease the excitability of a muscle when excessive stretch is sensed. Static stretches held for longer than six seconds activate this reflex to allow a muscle to elongate and prevent injury; however, this will negatively impact explosive performance.
What we do: A series of drills designed to reinforce landmark sprint positions.
Why we do it: Motor learning.
We are anchored by the philosophy that sprinting is a complex holistic skill, the teaching and learning of which involves many moving parts. Underlying all movement skill is an athlete’s awareness of their body in space, and the ability to achieve desired positions in properly timed sequences. The most important element of elite sprinting is not hammering the ground or exerting maximum effort, but the ability of an athlete to reposition their limbs to apply force in the proper direction while moving at 11 meters per second.Underlying all movement skill is an athlete’s awareness of their body in space. Click To Tweet
Drilling key sprint positions allows for the development of proprioception and kinesthetic awareness in the context of these landmark positions. Sprint drills also provide additional, opportunities for the athlete to practice repositioning their limbs in space, and interacting with the ground.
Exploration of degrees of freedom with elite performers: Drills allow an athlete to safely explore the inherent variation found in the most seemingly repetitive movements to find optimal solutions to movement problems. Exploratory practice encourages an athlete to find their own motor solutions, rather than being cued into a movement that may or may not be optimal for them individually. This particular objective, however, is not applicable to all populations.
Exploratory practice has been shown to be more beneficial to novices, who are still searching for a motor solution. It is also beneficial to elites, who have actualized a motor solution such that experimenting, within an appropriate bandwidth, will not be greatly detrimental to their performance of said skill. Athletes in the middle, who are in the process of stabilizing a skill, may not be as well-served by exploratory practice, as exploring new solutions too early may interfere with the stabilization of the basic solution.
Introduction and integration of cyclical movement: Dribbling is a significant component of our Sprint Drill module. Dribbles are a truncated sprint cycle, and are the most specific drill to upright sprinting. Gradually increasing the amplitude of motion increases time in the air and demand for temporal-spatial awareness. Further, dribbles can be organized to imitate certain actions. Ascending dribbles mimic growing amplitude, increasing forces and flight times in an open sprint or acceleration. In contrast, descending dribbles mimic stride restriction and control of momentum for hurdlers.
The specific drills and exercises we use in our warm-ups can be found for free on the ALTIS 360 app.
At ALTIS, training is organized thematically, a philosophical construct that extends to the structure and implementation of our warm-ups as well. While nearly identical warm-up elements will be utilized for all track workouts, there are some key organizational differences between our two main warm-ups, which we simply term “warm-up A” and “warm-up B.”
Warm-up A is our acceleration-themed warm-up, and is performed before training sessions in which acceleration is the central theme. Sessions prior to which we may assign warm-up A include block work, short hills, and acceleration complexes.
This warm-up consists of the first six exercises in the Torso Activation, Dynamic Mobility, and Dynamic Flexibility modules, followed by all 12 Sprint Drills coupled with three to five step bursts. Adding these short bursts coupled with sprint drills allows for a higher volume and density of acceleration practice, in which emphasis is placed on rehearsing the key positions and exploring the degrees of freedom in early acceleration. Because the addition of three to five step bursts requires more energy on the back end of the warm-up, and because we want warm-ups to stimulate but not fatigue the athletes prior to their main workout, the first three modules are abbreviated to protect the quality of skill practice.
Warm-up B is our upright, or maximum-velocity-themed warm-up, and is performed prior to sessions in which speed development and upright sprinting are the central theme. Sessions prior to which warm-up B would be assigned include bounding, wickets, segment runs, end-bend runs, and flat reps at or over 60 meters.
This warm-up consists of all 12 exercises in each module, as well as six elastic strength (ES) exercises, consisting of a series of hops and bounds.
The six ES exercises place more specific emphasis on purposeful interaction with the ground and loading the hamstring in a lengthened position, both occurring through vertical and horizontal force vectors. With the gradual intensification of specific stresses the body will encounter during upright sprinting, this module serves to bridge the gap between the previous warm-up elements and the main session.
An Important First Step
Every coach wants their athletes to perform at their best, and avoid the injury list. Thoughtfully and purposefully constructed warm-up protocols administered by an attentive coach are a practical first step toward this goal. While warm-ups may not be the flashiest or most exciting element of a training program, they are invaluable opportunities to physically and mentally assess and prepare athletes for practice or competition—opportunities that we must take advantage of.For more coach and athlete resources from ALTIS, see ALTIS 360.
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Jeffreys, I. (2006). “Motor Learning—Applications for Agility, Part 1.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(5), 72.