Best warm-up practices for peak performance returning to races
With spring just a few short months away a few races are starting to appear as “in-person” events. With so much time since many have been to a race it might be a good time to review pre-race warm up practices. Looking at the exercises from past races the practice of stretching seems to be a favorite. Runners lean against a post, wall, or tree and stretch the calf muscles out. Some runners do both legs at the same time, others do one leg at time. There is one stretch for the lower leg that is seldom practiced. There are two muscles in the lower leg. The gastrocnemius, which runs from the heel to the bottom of the femur (upper leg bone). There is also a shorter muscle in the lower leg that is the soleus. Both muscles contract to plantar flex the foot (point the toe) and propel the runner forward. Watching most runners stretch the lower leg out the leg is straight. This will stretch the gastrocnemius. To stretch the soleus you have to bend the knee and move it forward while keeping the heel on the ground. My personal experience with not stretching the soleus muscle came early in my running career. About three miles into a 10K race my calf muscles would start to cramp up. The soleus muscle was the one that was cramping. Once I stretched both muscles out the cramping midway through the race disappeared. I also did some loosing of the ankle by putting my toe on the ground and wiggling my foot around. Problems with cramping and tight muscles decreased when I took time to warm them up.
There are many runners that stretch the hamstring muscle in the back of the upper leg before a race. The hamstrings are actually one of the major movers of the leg when running. The action of the leg when running is backward, or extension, of the upper leg. That is one of the actions of the hamstring muscles. The other is flexion of the lower leg and that is also a major movement for runners. One of the easiest moves to stretch the hamstrings is to bend forward and touch your toes. Some runners place the foot on an elevation, such as a chair, low fence, or the side of a wall, and lean forward to stretch the hamstrings. While bending forward to stretch the hamstring is probably the primary purpose of doing this exercise the movement also stretches the low back muscles.
One warm up practice that you usually see with the elite runners is running before the race. Running has two advantages in the warm up. One is that running warms the muscles used in the race. There is some research that states that stretching a muscle makes it slower to contract versus moving the muscle enables it to allow faster contraction. Stretching is done after the race to take away the tightness of the muscles. The second advantage is that it increases the function of the cardiovascular system. The heart rate increases and blood flow to the muscles increases.
The body adapts to the demands put on it. When you start running the body speeds up the heart rate to pump more blood to the muscles and more air to the lungs for breathing. What happens to the runner that does not run before the race starts is that the systems of the body are playing catch up to meet the demands of more movement. The muscles need more oxygen to contract and the heart has to pump the blood to the muscles. When the heart goes from a resting, non-active, rate to a faster rate to meet the extra demand, it often falls behind trying to catch up. The result is what is termed, ‘oxygen debt’. The runner cannot get enough oxygen to the muscles and tries to breathe faster for more air. The blood flow is still working to catch up with this increased demand and the result is the runner having to slow down, and in some cases, stop completely, to let all the systems catch up. The runner has to start a slow jog and gradually increase speed as the heart rate, blood flow, breathing rate, and muscles oxygen needs, become coordinated to meet the demands of running faster.
If the runner puts some distance in before the race all the systems are already increased and ready to continue at a faster running pace. Even if the runner is a slow runner it is beneficial to put some time running to warm the body up. A warm muscle after running is more responsive to any extra stretching the runner may want to do.
Hopefully there will be a few more ‘in person’ races in the next few months and runners are ready to run.