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The importance of warm-up, cool-down, and flexibility in injury prevention

– Elaine Gonya, MSed, LAT
Aurora Sports Medicine Institute

Living in the Midwest, the window for participation in outdoor activities can open and close quite quickly. Consequently, trying to jam as much activity as possible into a short time frame predisposes your body for injury. So how do you minimize soreness and improve your fitness level while taking advantage of the weather? Warm-up exercises! By adding warm-up stretches and exercises before beginning activity, you'll not only decrease muscle soreness, you'll also increase flexibility and range of motion around a joint.

Progression is certainly the key for stretches and exercises in combination with the intensity level involved in your selected activities. Lower intensity stretches and exercises should gradually progress toward more demanding activity followed by a cool-down recovery period.

Let's take a closer look at the components of warm-up and cool-down:

Warm-up: Many studies support inclusion of gentle warm-up exercises prior to stretching. A gentle warm-up (4 to 5 minutes) can include a walk around the block, a short ride on a stationary bike or treadmill, or any other activity that gradually increases body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and blood flow. In turn, these increases help assist with oxygen delivery to the muscles making them more pliable and easier to stretch.

Stretching:Five to 15 minutes of pre-activity stretching is suggested to help prepare the muscles for the demands of the upcoming activity. Static stretching – or stretches for major muscle groups and muscle groups specific to the sport – should be held for 10 to 20 seconds. Proper technique is essential in preventing injury due to over-stretching or incorrectly stretching muscles. Many internet websites now boast the latest and most biomechanically sound techniques (i.e., webMD, etc.); local fitness clubs have personnel to assist fitness enthusiasts; and many organizations offer classes that teach proper stretching.

Dynamic warm-up: Following general muscle stretching, the addition of five minutes of dynamic ("moving") warm-up allows the body to be fully warmed up prior to exertional exercises. Dynamic exercises should be done progressively and be within each person's ability to exercise. (FYI: If a doctor has advised against extreme shoulder rotation, some dynamic arm exercises are not for you.) A brief set of dynamic exercises may include: walking while completing arm circles, lunges, high knee walks, heel to "rear" kicks, swinging arms or legs while stationary.

Not intended to be high intensity in nature, dynamic exercises may cause injury if not done properly. These very controlled movements are designed to re-elevate heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and blood flow before you begin more exertional exercises. It is recommended that dynamic exercises be properly taught by an exercise professional, and once learned, they can add tremendous value to the warm-up and overall fitness of an individual.

Cool-down:After completing a warm-up and selected sport/activity, a cool-down period is suggested to allow the body enough time to gradually transition from intense movement to normal daily activity. Stretching for five to ten minutes, taking a slower walk around the block, or enjoying a slower pace on the stationary bike or treadmill has been shown to be beneficial in removing muscle waste products (i.e., lactic acid, etc.) that can often cause muscle soreness. As an added benefit, stretching after physical activity has been shown to allow the greatest increase in muscle flexibility during a fitness program.

After updating yourself on appropriate methods of stretching and warm-up exercises, allow yourself some time to adjust to your new workout routine. It may take your body a couple of weeks to adjust to the new pre- and post-activity regimen you've implemented.

Injury Prevention:Injuries occur due to a number of reasons:

  • Over-estimating your current fitness level
  • Lack of proper equipment for the activity
  • Ignoring inclimate weather
  • Overlooking nutritional and hydration needs that new activities introduce

Equipment:Whether it's a bicycle helmet, golf/running shoes, or wrist/shin guards, be sure that you invest in the proper equipment – and then wear it! Equipment should fit the person well, be in good condition, and updated as necessary for the selected activity. Thinking about re-establishing your road running career? Before you hit the road, take a trip to a knowledgeable running shoe store. For preventable injuries, it's often less expensive and time consuming to purchase a pair of quality shoes for $80 versus a trip to your medical professional or emergency room.

Sport-specific training: Train using activities with similar intensity and duration that your sport demands. If you have just joined a basketball league, it's important to get on the court more often than just game day. The ability to jog three miles at a slow to moderate pace is great for general cardiovascular fitness, however, it doesn't address the specific demands placed on the body by the sprinting, cutting, and jumping that basketball requires.

Weather: Pay attention to weather reports. If the weather forecast calls for high heat and humidity during a planned long-distance bike ride, consider the time of day you should ride; wear light-colored clothing that refracts light; review your hydration options, sunscreen protection, and alternate routes that might offer more air-flow, as well as any other predictable factors that may make your ride safer and more enjoyable.

Food/hydration: "You are what you eat (and drink)". Warm-weather activities often place greater caloric demands on bodies as compared to those during Wisconsin "hibernation" months. Honor your calorie requirements through quality food choices and sufficient hydration.

Remember:

  • Vitamin supplements should never equal what one should consume from food. Seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with all kinds of awesome vitamins and minerals that your body craves.
  • Not every 30-minute walk or weight-lifting routine needs to be followed by a 20-ounce energy drink. Often the best hydration option is plain water.

While not all injuries are preventable, many can be easily avoided by updating your wellness-knowledge base. Pay attention to your body! It uses aches and pains to communicate with you. Be proactive in your approach to injury prevention! Partaking in outdoor activities in Wisconsin can be very rewarding – especially if you're smart with your decisions.

For additional information on this topic or to schedule a FREE Injury Evaluation, call the Aurora Sports Medicine Hotline™ at (414) 219-7776 or (800) 219-7776.