Fire it up! The Importance of a Good Warm-Up
Much has been made of the importance of warming-up before beginning a training session, and yet in general most people underdo or even skip entirely this vital aspect of the discipline of parkour. Some may not know why warming up is so important, others may not know how; some may perceive it to be a waste of time, while others might see it as boring, wanting to dive straight into the jumps and vaults with minimal or no preparation. If you fit into one of these categories, you need to read on.
The proficient know well enough that there are no shortcuts within serious training. Neglect any one aspect and you not only limit your potential but you also put yourself at risk, and this is especially true when it comes to preparing the body for exertion. A good, thorough warm-up is an essential part of any training routine. It prepares both your body and mind for the rigours and demands of dynamic movement, greatly reducing the chance of injury while also improving your overall efficiency and economy of motion.
Warming-up consists of two main components: Firstly, some sort of light exercise such as slow running or skipping to increase the heart rate slightly and raise one’s core temperature. This is known as a ‘global’ warm-up, and should result in a light sweat but should not tire you out. Secondly, an activity-specific warm-up that concentrates on preparing the body systems and muscle groups that are to be most called-upon during the training session. This will mainly involve stretching, joint manipulation, and breathing. Throughout both warm-up and training ensure that you drink enough water to stay hydrated – think of water as the oil in a motor engine; without it, there are going to be big problems!
To understand why you need to warm up, you need to understand how your body changes when preparing itself for intense exertion such as is commonplace in parkour.
Warming-up is so called because it is exactly that – a warming of the body. Its purpose, above all, is to raise the body temperature enough to create the ideal conditions for the smooth running of all the physical systems about to be employed. At rest, the human body typically sits at between 36-37º Celsius and regulates this through neural feedback mechanisms using radiation, convection, conduction and evaporation of perspiration. It is a remarkable system, all governed by the part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, and is very finely tuned.
However, the optimal body temperature for physical activity is 39º Celsius, and those extra couple of degrees are extremely important. That slight rise in temperature has highly beneficial effects when it comes to the capability of the body to carry out extreme physical exertion.
- Muscles and Tendons: At 39ºC the necessary chemical reactions that go on inside the cells of muscle fibres occur much faster. This improves the overall efficiency of the tissues and increases the elasticity of the tendons and the flexibility of the muscles by around 80%. Also at this raised temperature blood cells become more dilated which increases the oxygen flow to the muscles, improving their work-rate and endurance.
- Central Nervous System: Made up of your brain, your spinal cord, and an enormous network of nerves that thread throughout every part of your physiology, this is the control centre for your entire body. Your brain uses information it receives from your nerves to coordinate all of your actions and reactions, and thus it is vital that the nervous system is operating perfectly during any exercise. The nervous system has been found to be most efficient at 39ºC, because at this temperature electrical impulses travel faster through muscle and nerve tissue and consequently coordination and the speed of muscle contraction are measurably increased.
- Joints: The joints are lubricated by a liquid called the synovial fluid, which bathes the movable structures between our bones. It nourishes and lubricates the cartilage at the end of each bone, and protects the joints as they go through all ranges of motion. At 39ºC the synovial liquid thins, becoming more fluid, which allows for a wider range of safe movement for the joints. During parkour practice it is quite usual for the joints to be put through a whole host of movements, many of them uncommon and complex, and so it is critical that the work of the synovial fluid is maximised.
So you can see how important it is to ‘warm’ the body correctly before training. Everything just works better when the internal temperature is that little bit higher. Beyond hitting the right temperature, however, there is a host of other benefits from engaging in a comprehensive warm-up routine…
Heart and Mind
Going straight into explosive exercise without a warm-up period means that your heart suddenly leaps from its resting beat-rate to double or triple what it is comfortable with. This puts great strain on the heart and over time can result in serious problems. During a graduated warm-up, however, the cardiac rhythm increases progressively and gradually, meaning the heart can produce the same efforts with the same intensity without running the risk of accumulated strain and damage.
And this preparation is important on more than just the physical level. A good warm-up period allows your mind to focus on the tasks ahead, moving you into the correct and appropriate mental state for an activity as demanding as parkour. It acts as a transitional stage from the fairly random thought-processes of everyday living to the highly focused and committed intensity best employed for training. It encourages concentration on your physical self and helps you to get ‘in sync’ and collect yourself for the demands you are about to place on your body.
Perhaps most importantly, warming-up greatly reduces the chance of incurring small, silly injuries from your training. These can be any number of things, from an over-extension of a joint to pulled muscles or torn ligaments, and usually result from a lack of flexibility in the relevant tissue or structure. Flexibility improves when one’s muscles and tendons are hot, so make sure you get warm and stay warm during your training period – remember that you can cool down very quickly if you are standing around doing nothing, so be particularly aware of this in group training sessions and jams when you may be inclined to stop to talk to others. If it is cold outside wear layers to keep the muscles warm, and keep a light sweat going at all times.
Warming-up is one of the most important parts of any training regime. You absolutely must not ignore it or engage in it half-heartedly. Develop a comprehensive routine that covers all the major muscle groups and joints and use it! A good standard time for a warm-up is 20 minutes minimum: this should get the internal temperature up to around the critical 39ºC mark. And if you need more time to get comfortably warm, just keep on warming up. Only you can know when you are fully ready to train.
Of course, if you find your routines becoming mundane and boring, change them! Be creative, and you will find that you can enjoy the warm-up as much as you enjoy the training itself.
Warming Down: The importance of easing off the gas
Just as important as a warm-up, and even more neglected, is the warm-down period that should come immediately after any arduous training session. Warming down is like taking your foot off the accelerator gently, allowing the vehicle to come to a natural rest, rather than slamming on the brakes and being hurled through the windshield…
Firstly, a proper warm-down encourages the muscles, ligaments and even organs to return to their natural length and position within the body. When your heart has been pumping furiously and the muscles have been working overtime, much of your physiology actually becomes slightly displaced from its normal resting position. A gentle warm-down allows everything to return to normal gradually and safely.
Secondly, a sudden stop can interrupt the cardiac rhythm and reduce dramatically the blood circulation to and from the heart. This can result in you feeling faint, or having dizzy spells after training which, if allowed to accumulate, can have serious repercussions. Bring the heart rate down slowly and the cardiac rhythm will remain unbroken.
Your system has also created waste products and toxins that need to be broken down correctly in order to avoid the onset of severe muscle soreness. All muscular activity, especially anaerobic exercise, generates a toxin known as lactic acid. If this toxin is not broken down, it will cause great discomfort for some time after training and is the cause of muscle aches for days afterwards. To break it down the muscles have to be working, but at a much lower intensity than that which generated the toxin in the first place. Slow running, walking, and light skipping are all suitable methods for eliminating lactic acid in the muscles, so a warm-down should include one of these or a similarly relaxed activity.
Following this stage, stretching is an absolutely vital component that must not be overlooked. Work on all the major muscle-groups, easing the tension out of them, employing gentle massage if necessary. Relax the muscles, tendons and ligaments, and concentrate on slowing your breathing until it is deep and measured. Use the time to calm your mind and centre your awareness, letting go of all the stress, anxieties and fears that can accumulate during training. This is a time to re-integrate body and mind, so take as long as you need until you feel comfortable, relaxed and physically light.
As a general rule, a warm-down should take no less than twenty minutes. Drink lots of water to replenish lost fluids and help clean out toxins. Taking a shower also washes away the toxins from the body that result from sweating and helps your skin breathe again.
There is a hidden benefit to doing a proper warm-down: it establishes the ideal conditions for getting the most out of your rest. Remember, it is when the body is at rest after exercise that it gets stronger, not during the exercise itself. For instance, muscle fibres stretch and tear during weight-training, and it is actually during the healing of this damage that the muscles makes themselves stronger.
How long you should rest for is dependent upon the type of training you have been doing. Basic aerobic exercise, having only a low impact on the body’s systems, means that you should be fine to train again the following day. But after intense, anaerobic exercise you really should take a good 24-48 hours rest to fully eliminate all toxins from the body. Again, listen to what your body is telling you and don’t over-train all the time – parkour places large demands on your physiology, and it will only be able to meet those demands if you take the time to look after it before and after training.
So treat your warm-down and your rest as a serious part of your training, and allow your body to recover properly between sessions. A thorough warm-down will facilitate this, leaving you relaxed and at peace, your body already preparing for the next session.