Warming up prior to an athletic event is a common and widely endorsed practice in the sporting world. Its common practice for elite athletes in various sports to warm up for up to an hour or even longer depending on the sport. The warm-up (WU) is believed to enhance athletic performance by optimizing muscle temperature, oxygen uptake, anaerobic metabolism, and postactivation potentiation (PAP) of the muscles 1,2. However, research on the potentially deleterious effects of WU-induced fatigue is scarce. Furthermore, little research has been conducted to determine the ideal (and potentially sport-specific) duration and intensity of a WU. A recent study by Tomaras & MacIntosh (2011) showed that for highly-trained sprint track cyclists, an experimental WU (shorter duration and lower intensity) resulted in less fatigue compared to a traditional WU. Additionally, the cyclists were able to generate higher peak power output (PPO) and total work following the experimental WU compared to the traditional WU1.
Interestingly, the traditional WU for these track cyclists included 52 minutes of general exercises, accelerations, sprints, rests, more accelerations and sprints, more rest and recovery, and more acceleration sprints. This WU is not uncommon in the sporting world among numerous sports, but when layed out so simply, it seems excessive. The experimental WU that the researchers in the study created lasted only 17 minutes, with a general warm up, one 30s acceleration, one 6 second sprint, and recovery. The experimental protocol seems minimal in comparison, but the results were clear that the shorter warm up improved performance, and decreased the amount of fatigue the cyclists experienced.
The question then becomes, although the study by Tomaras & MacIntosh proved that a shorter warm up induced PAP rather than fatigue, is even less better? The purpose of achieving postactivation potentiation in the muscle (PAP) is to increase the rate of force development and in turn, hopefully improve speed and power 2. Although PAP cannot increase high frequency force, it can increase the rate of force development, which helps in acceleration at high speeds. With endurance performance, just starting the event will cause PAP, however, in strength and performance, a balance must be struck between PAP and any fatigue induced by the conditioning activity2.
Warm ups causing PAP are not fully understood in humans to date, so the literature to date is unclear on the best length of warm up for each type of sporting event. Sale (2002) mentions that PAP lasts about 5 minutes, a much shorter time frame than most athlete's window between their warm up and their event. In some circumstances, certain events in some sports can be delayed by hours from the scheduled start time, diminishing even the most basic of warm up effects.
Track cyclists traditionally perform a WU prior to a 200-m sprint that results in significant muscular fatigue and has an adverse effect on short-term all-out performance - a fact that should be considered more widely across all sports. It should be taken into account that traditional WU's in most all modern day sport likely creats substantial fatigue. "The effects of such fatigue on the contractile response and, ultimately, the torque-angular velocity relation- ship diminished the potential benefits of increased muscle temperature and PAP1. A shorter and lower-intensity WU would benefit athletes competing in sprint track events in cycling specifically, but individual responses need to be taken into consideration in the design of WU protocols for competitive athletes.
1. Tomaras EK, MacIntosh BR. Less is more: standard warm-up causes fatigue and less warm-up permits greater cycling power output. J. Appl. Physiol. 2011;111(1):228-35. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00253.2011.
2. Sale DG. Postactivation Potentiation: Role in Human Performance. Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev. 2002;30(3):138-143. doi:10.1097/00003677-200207000-00008.