How many times do you start a workout in a huge time crunch, knowing something will have to give? If you’re like most of us, probably more often than not. In that state of rush often times we just jump in, skip the warm up and get to the good stuff; after all the intervals, hills or even race pace are the most important part of the workout, right? Not really.
Skipping your warm up is the LAST thing you want to do. It is not only important, it is imperative. The quality of your entire workout and arguably, your goals, depend on a proper warm up. Let’s look at why:
DYNAMIC WARM UP
First, without getting into detail, your nerves and muscles need to be “primed” and stimulated to fully operate. Think about if you start your car in the dead of winter and just take off. The engine will not go through combustion as smooth as it would if you hung out and let the engine warm up. You can do the same with your muscles via a Dynamic Warm up. Basically here you move the muscles through their entire range of motion thereby “stretching” them without decreasing force production, which is what happens during a static stretch.
METABOLIC AND CARDIOVASCULAR FUN
Second, and where we will spend our time in this post, is the metabolic and cardiovascular changes that occur when we start exercising. This is where things like on-kinetics, mitochondrial priming and energy breakdown (glycolysis, Krebs cycle, and those fancy things) MUST occur in order to get the most out of your workout. Again, we can get into detail here but instead let’s look at the main point…
Your whole goal of the warm up is to allow the body to burn more fat. Whether your and endurance athlete, looking for weight loss or even trying to build muscle, warming up acts to “trick” the body into using the correct amount of fuel. We could look at energy systems, the “crossover theory” and all kinds of fun physiology here. I’d rather look at real life.
Below are some splits cropped out of Garmin Connect highlighting a recent cycling class I taught. I hit the lap button after the warm up (split one), and after each main set (if you will) of the workout. The first lesson in a proper warm up has to do with duration: A proper warm up should be 8-12 minutes in duration. As you can see below, I was able to nip the 8 minute mark. I’d rather see it closer to 10-12 (even 15 minutes on some occasions). I’m sure I got carried away jamming out to the music!
In addition to being around 10 minutes, the warm up should be PROGRESSIVE. That is, you should start out at a low intensity and slowly increase the effort, pace, power, etc to allow for the body to adjust to the change. Heart Rate can be a good tool to “take the temperature” (so to speak) of your metabolic and cardiovascular system, so you can see if your body is responding. Here is a graph of the entire ride, with heart rate in red and the time on the bottom of the graph.
As you can see, on this ride I started out pretty low (I had be spinning without resistance for a 5 minutes waiting for class to start) and I peaked close to 160 beats per minute around the 8:30 mark. So this was in fact, a progressive warm up. THIS IS INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. The science here is deep but basically if you start at an intensity that stimulates a low HR, and get your HR up to close to or right below your LT (Zone 4) and hold it here for a few minutes, you turn on all of your energy systems in the correct sequences. Hitting close to LT puts the body under stress, threatening to “back up your energy system highway” via Lactic Acid, but then you back it off and allow the Heart Rate to come back to a very aerobic stimulus (Zone 1). What this does is tricks the body into sparing sugar and using more fat, stay aerobic longer and allows your workout to be EXTREMELY efficient.
So breaking this down a bit, below are my zones for the bike based of my VO2 peak (a test Lifetime Fitness calls an Anaerobic Metabolic Test or AMA for short).
As you can see my Lactate Threshold–they use the term Anaerobic Threshold which are essentially synonymous–occurs in conjunction with a steady state heart rate of 164 bpm. If you look at my warm up graph, I managed to hit that number almost exactly (kind of funny I actually was going off of “feel” here and didn’t really look at my Heart Rate during class…guess my RPE monitor is still in tune)! Then I let my heart rate come back down before I I started climbing back up during class. Notice there is also a point where you Cool Down as well!
Here’s the deal: we are are strapped for time. But you’d be better off spending 10 minutes engaging in what I call a “progressive warm up” and 10-20 minutes doing your workout then you would be to just jump in and get to the workout. You’ll see better results, be able to tolerate harder workouts and honestly feel better at the end then if you just went for it. If you don’t, your body will likely be unable to tolerate the stress of the workout and over time, your metabolism will shift to burning more sugar, which can lead to weight gain, cortistol (stress) imbalances and a whole slew of not so fun things. Avoid these issues by investing the time to get your warm up on!