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The Warm Up

“Warming up before exercise is the best way to reduce the risk of injury and prepare your body and mind for activity.”

Although we all know this to be true, many of us will still fail to warm up properly before playing or exercising and will most likely at sometime in our lives suffer the consequences of ignoring this very important part of physical activity. I suppose it’s a bit like the warnings regarding smoking … we all know the risks but for one reason or another many still choose to ignore them.

Why do so many of us fail to carry out even the most basic of warm ups before playing or exercising?

Some of the most common excuses given are:

“I didn’t have enough time”
This is probably more to do with the fact that the warm up was not seen as being important enough, so no time was allocated to it in the first place.

“I didn’t know what to do”
Any form of moderate exercise before playing/vigorous exercise would have been better than none at all and helps to avoid possible injury. Warm ups do not have to be rocket science; we all at least know how to jog around for a few minutes which increases the blood flow and  warms up the major muscles of the lower body, therefore  greatly reducing the likelihood of straining anything.

“Nobody else seemed to warm up and I was too embarrassed to do it by myself.”
If we are perfectly honest this is probably the main reason why we often don’t warm up properly.  Peer group pressure, looking stupid, being the odd one out, or appearing too keen in front of others are all factors that far too often override what we know we really should be doing before participating in vigorous activity.  

TAG Rugby can be a very fast and energetic activity and in the first few seconds of a game you might well be expected to run flat out for 20 metres or more. Failing to warm up properly could end your game prematurely and result in a hefty physio bill…… then who looks the stupid one?

Chew this over next time you intend taking part in some physical exercise

If you can imagine that your muscles are like a piece of chewing gum and carry out the following experiment you will soon start to appreciate how easily you can injure your muscles and ligaments by not warming up before vigorous activity.

Unwrap a new piece of gum, put it into your mouth and grip it tightly in your teeth by biting into it.  Then grasp a piece of the gum with your fingers and give it a sudden, hard pull. What happens to it? … Well usually it will immediately snap in two. Now repeat this same exercise but this time ‘warm up’ the gum by chewing it first for several minutes. Now grip it with your teeth as before and pull it out steadily and gently with your fingers. What happens now? This time you should be able to stretch the gum out for some distance before it eventually breaks.  This is similar to how your muscles respond during exercise; fail to warm and stretch them gradually first and you are far more likely to strain or snap them when you suddenly ask them to stretch and change length.

Top tips to help ensure you complete a warm up  

  • Allocate some time for a warm up before you play/exercise. About 10 -12 minutes is all you really need, adding a few extra minutes in colder weather. Try to build it in as a part of your preparation before playing.
  • Where possible warm up as a team, or at least with others – this will aid motivation, avoid any embarrassment and help create some team spirit.
  • Start off gently – slow jogging or power walking is all you need to get going.
  • Keep together and establish a routine that works for you - if you are short of ideas, look on the internet, go to the library or watch others warm up; there is plenty of information out there.
  • Nominate a person in your team or group to lead the warm up. It does not necessarily have to be your captain, just someone who others will listen to and follow.
  • Decide on a time and place where your team/group will meet for your warm up. Approximately 15-20 minutes before your kick off time is about right.
  • Wear extra clothing such as a tracksuit when warming up, even on warm summer days or when playing indoors. This will aid blood circulation and help maintain concentration levels.
  • Allow enough time at the end of the warm up for final preparations before you take the field of play e.g. having a little drink, removing excess clothing, putting boots on, or having that last nervous wee!

The Four Stages of a Warm Up

A warm up should provide a smooth transition from rest to the intensity of the main activity or competition situation. Start slowly and build up gradually, concentrating on the movements and muscles that you are going to be using.  There are the following 4 main stages to a warm up:

Stage 1 – Gentle, whole body aerobic exercise such as jogging or power walking.
The aim of this is to raise your body temperature and is probably the most important part of any warm up. Raising the body temperature increases the blood flow and in turn warms up your muscles, making them more flexible and less likely to be pulled or strained. To help maintain interest, this could include heel flicks, high knee raises, gentle skipping, side stepping etc.

Stage 2 - Stretching
Once you start to feel some beads of sweat on your forehead then usually this is a good sign that your body is warm enough to move onto the second stage of the warm up… stretching. Stretching increases the range of movement at the joints and helps stops muscles, tendons and ligaments getting strained.

Traditionally these took the form of static stretches, easy stretches that are held for about 10 seconds without straining. The modern trend is for these stretches to be dynamic (stretching with movement) and you will see professional sportsmen and women swinging arms and legs around in all manner of ways before competition in an attempt to stretch their muscles dynamically. The general theory behind this type of stretching is that this is what you will be expecting your muscles to be doing whilst performing so why not prepare them in a similar way? Personally, I still believe there is a place for static stretching in a warm up and I prefer carrying out some static stretches first, and only after the muscles start feeling a little looser and relaxed do I then feel confident enough to move on to some of the more dynamic type stretches. 

Try and follow a set routine of stretches which you do each time, concentrating on the muscles you are going to use most. This will help establish your warm up as a routine before you play and will ensure that you do not forget to stretch any of the important muscle groups. Working from the ankles upwards, or the other way around, is a routine used by many.

You do not have to do all your stretches in one go and I would suggest to avoid getting too cold and to maintain interest you intermittently break off from your stretching and go for another short jog.

Stage 3 – Three-quarter to full pace running
Carry out a few three-quarter to full pace pick-up running drills. Pick-up drills involve a smooth transition from jogging to striding, to three-quarter pace to full pace, and are carried out in this manner to avoid injury caused by any sudden change in speed. Initially do these over a short distance and gradually build up, allowing plenty of time for recovery between runs. Pick-up drills like these will make sure your body is fully warmed up and will help start to fire those fast twitch muscles you need for sprinting.

Stage 4 – Skill-specific activities
As well as warming up your body these will also help warm up your mind and develop team understanding and togetherness.
In this stage of your warm up you practice some of the fundamental skills that you are likely to use in the game e.g. some basic passing or running drills.

The Cool Down

Cooling down after vigorous exercise helps your body to recover quicker and reduces the level of muscle soreness and stiffness that you might feel over the next few days. A cool down only has two phases and does not have to be as lengthy as a warm up.

Phase 1- Gentle, whole body aerobic exercise like jogging or walking.
Start with a couple of minutes of easy jogging/walking. This will help blood circulation and will pump more oxygen to the muscles.  Maintaining a good supply of oxygen to the muscles immediately after exercise will help stop a build up of lactic acid, a ‘poison’ to the muscle, and therefore avoid muscle soreness and stiffness later on.

Phase 2 – Static stretching
Finish with some static stretching of the main muscles that you have used, holding each stretch for about 10 - 20 seconds.

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