I was about to start “high-stepping” like Deion Sanders. The end zone was in sight, and no one was near me.
It was a frigid December day a few years ago in Washington, DC (wind chill in the single digits), and my flag football team was in a 2nd round playoff game. After intercepting a pass at the back right corner of the end zone, I had launched into an all-out sprint down the right sideline of the field. In an attempt to cut me off around midfield, the opposing quarterback was running in a straight line (perpendicular to the sideline) from where he threw the pass that I had just picked off.
He was headed right at me, so I cut back around midfield. He went running right past me.
All I had to do now was run another 40 yards or so straight ahead, and I would hit paydirt. I was feeling pretty good about myself, first from intercepting a pass in the end zone and then from making the QB whiff. I was about to top it off by scoring a touchdown.
Then, it happened. It felt like a tennis ball popped out of the back of my left leg. I took a few more strides before pulling up lame and falling to the ground in agony at the 20-yard line. So much for being able to do a dance in the end zone. The verdict? Torn hamstring.
I should have known better. I violated the first rule for preventing exercise injuries: I was cold.
This play occurred at the beginning of the second game of a double-header. I had warmed up before the first game and stayed warm for the entire game. No issues. However, we had a 20-minute break in between games, and I just sat on the sideline with my teammates until the next game began. I got cold during the break, but I figured I’d warm-up again during the next game. Little did I know I’d be attempting a 100-yard sprint just a few plays in, while still cold.
Want to eliminate injuries while exercising? Here’s the first rule: warm-up and stay warm.
- Warm muscles are stronger, more flexible, and much less likely to get injured.
- Cold muscles are weaker, less flexible, and much more likely to strain or tear.
Your warm-up should start slow, build gradually, and be a lower-intensity version of whatever exercise(s) you plan to do that day. If you are at a gym, 8-10 minutes on an elliptical is a great warm-up. Start at a slow pace and increase resistance throughout the warm-up. Your heart rate will be elevated after 8-10 minutes, and you’ll warm up all your major muscles with minimal impact to your joints. This is the first phase of my warm-up every time I lift weights at the gym.
If you are not at a gym, or you don’t have access to an elliptical, you can walk or jog in place and add in some body-weight exercises (i.e. air squats, push-ups, planks) and plyometrics (i.e. high knees or butt kicks). This is how I warm-up my group whenever I teach a fitness boot camp.
Either way, the strategy is the same. Start slow, gradually increase intensity, and mimic any movements you plan to do in the actual workout.
Equally important after your warm-up is staying warm during your workout, as shown in the story above. If you warm-up for 10 minutes but then take long breaks throughout your workout, you can erase benefits of the warm-up in the first place. This is common at the gym with people who spend time socializing or daydreaming in between sets. This can also happen if you exercise in a crowded gym where you have to wait in between sets to use machines or weights. If that happens to you, just jog in place or do another exercise. Either way, keep your down time to a minimum once your workout begins, so you can stay warm.
The right clothing is also crucial for staying warm during your workout. Compression shorts, leg sleeves, or tight spandex shorts/pants can keep your lower body warm when you are doing cardio or strength training for your legs. Compression shirts or arm sleeves can keep your upper body warm when you are doing strength training for your upper body. If you get cold easily (like me), I strongly recommend you wear compression shorts/shirts while exercising in an environment that is cool or cold. Remember… warm muscles are stronger, more flexible, and less likely to get injured.
What if you’re short on time? Can you shorten the warm-up to less than 8-10 minutes?
If your time is limited, use your time very efficiently during your workout and amp up your intensity after your warm-up. Do NOT skimp on your warm-up, or you are asking for injuries.
The benefits of the warm-up aren’t just physical; there are psychological benefits as well. The warm-up gives you a chance to prepare mentally for the exercise to follow. If you workout in the morning, the warm-up also helps you wake up before you dive into more intense exercise. I’m a zombie sometimes when I get to the gym at 6am. The warm-up helps my mind prepare for the physical effort that’s about to follow. If you work out in the evening, your warm-up helps you disconnect from the stresses of your day, before you go all-out.
One of the surest ways to guarantee an injury at the gym is to skip your warm-up and head right to the weight room or into some other intense form of exercise. If you want to prevent exercise injuries, make sure you warm-up and stay warm during every workout.
Until next time, remember that you’re stronger than you think…
-Pete Leibman, Creator of StrongerHabits.com
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