Earlier this year Elias Tomaras and Brian MacIntosh published a fascinating article in the Journal of Applied Physiology titled Less is more: standard warm-up causes fatigue and less warm-up permits greater cycling power output. The study got a lot of publicity and also generated some very interesting discussion among athletes who questioned whether the study had real-world applications or was primarily a matter of media hype.
As luck would have it, I worked with Elias while we were both undergraduate research assistants working under Dr MacIntosh at the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab back in 2006. Given the media interest in the study, and the fact that the media often paints a different picture than the researchers themselves, I thought it would be interesting to interview Elias about his study. He graciously agreed, and below you’ll find his description of the study itself, his thoughts on the media coverage of his article, and what the study does and does not tell us about warm-ups.
Q. First off – why do people warm-up? Is there much evidence to suggest that it improves performance?
A. I think most individuals warm-up because everyone else does and believe that it improves performance. It is likely impossible to find a competitive athlete that does not warm-up today. The shocking thing is – despite how common warm-up is prior to competition, there is very little scientific evidence to support its use. I’m not suggesting that warm-up is a bad thing – I’m merely saying that most of the research regarding warm-up as a possible performance enhancer has been poorly done. The most commonly cited review on warm-up by Bishop (2003) has even stated that much of the previous warm-up studies were “poorly controlled, contained few study participants and often omitted statistical analyses.” In addition Bishop has also stated that methodology regarding the warm-up design (e.g., duration, intensity, recovery, etc.) was highly variable. More research needs to be done following sound research principles in order for us to prove or disprove that warm-up is beneficial prior to competition of varying type, intensities, and durations.
Q. What led you and Brian to perform this new study?
A. Brian and I had worked on a 2009 study funded by Own The Podium examining the effect of high-intensity cycling on force production and cycling performance. In this study we had realized that our warm-up protocol was nothing like the protocol typically used by speed skaters or track cyclists. We ended up designing a warm-up protocol as similar as possible to a track cyclist’s warm-up for a 200m sprint event for the recently published study. We believed this would provide more meaningful results to the athletic community as it was more realistic and allowed us to examine what they actually do during their traditional warm-up routine.
Q. Could you briefly explain the study and the key findings?
A. The study is broken down into 2 phases. Phase 1 we examined the electrically elicited contractile response before and after both warm-ups conditions. In Phase 2 we examined how an athlete is able to perform on a 30 s isokinetic Wingate test before and after both warm-up conditions. The 2 warm-ups conditions were either an Experiment Warm-up (EWU) or Traditional Warm-up (TWU). The TWU was as close to an on track warm-up as we could replicate in the lab and EWU was very similar just shorter in duration and less intense.
In Phase 1 we found that significantly less fatigue was present in the EWU compared to TWU. Despite this, there was still significant fatigue present after the EWU but much less than TWU. This was confirmed by our contractile measurements which allow us to actually measure muscular fatigue – not performance. In Phase 2 we were able confirm that the fatiguing TWU protocol did impair Wingate test performance significantly when compared to EWU.
Q. Your test of performance was the Wingate – a 30 second all-out sprint. Do you think that you would see similar decreases in performance in an actual race? Are there any plans to get athletes to use these new warm-ups in a competitive setting?
A. I do believe that we would see similar decreases in performance on the track. If a muscle’s ability to produce force is significantly compromised then it should result in a decreased ability to perform a similar sprint on the track. Whether or not certain performance of varying durations would be influenced as much as we saw in our 30 s Wingate test – I’m not sure. This is what future research needs to examine in order to further our understanding of warm-up and its influence on athletic performance. Currently our group does not have any plans to test this on track. Many of the cyclists involved in the study have told me that they are experimenting with a shorter and less intense warm-up with success.
Q. You found that even a shortened warm-up caused muscle fatigue, measured as peak torque that the athletes could generate. Does that mean that any warm-up can cause fatigue?
A. Any activity of any kind has the ability to enhance and impair force production. It all comes down to the cumulative effect of these enhancing and impairing force mechanisms. So to answer your questions – yes, any warm-up has the ability to cause fatigue of varying degrees.
Q. Would a reduction in peak torque translate into a reduction in athletic performance?
A. This is a good question. In our study we were able to demonstrate that it can reduce athletic performance. I can’t say that any reduction in peak torque would reduce athletic performance because it depends on the extent to which peak torque is reduced and on the type of event. The connection between peak torque and true athletic performance is still fairly novel. Most of the research examining warm-up and athletic performance has been fairly poor and does not provide us with much insight regarding the potential positive aspects of warm-up.
Q. Do you think that these findings generalize to other events (e.g. distance running or swimming), or is the “less is more” idea is mainly important for sprint events?
A. I can only say that our study has demonstrated that it is possible to do too much warm-up for a sprint event. The connection between our study and longer distance events is unclear. It would be unethical and inappropriate of me (and others) to generalise our findings to all competitive events. The main point of our research was to demonstrate that more warm-up is not necessarily better and that athletes of any sport should question the norm, even if a certain warm-up protocol is performed by the top athletes in the world because it is possible for them to be fatiguing themselves as well.
Q. On his blog Sweat Science, runner and journalist Alex Hutchinson wondered whether these results would generalize to other settings:
“Bottom line: if you’re a track sprinter who spends nearly an hour warming up at up to 95% of max heart rate, then this study tells you something very important. But if your event is longer than 30 seconds (so that oxygen kinetics matter), and your warm-up tends to be shorter and less intense, don’t assume that this study is telling you to shorten it even more!”
What do you think – if your event is longer than 30 seconds and you already use a short/intense warm-up, do these results suggest you should shorten it even more?
A. There is no way for me to know this for sure. To suggest that “oxygen kinetics matter” for an event longer than 30 s is a broad generalisation. What if your event is 45 or 60 s? How much more does that matter and how much does that impact performance? Furthermore, it depends on what is meant by “shorter and less intense”. What people consider to be a short and low intensity warm-up may differ significantly. The main thing that I believe to be important is that people are open to questioning what the norm is regarding a warm-up regardless of the duration and intensity of the competitive event. We don’t have all the answers yet.
Q. What would you suggest for the non-athletes who are exercising for fun and fitness – is the warm-up still important?
A. I was asked this question a number of times by the media but it did not receive coverage as far as I know. In my opinion – there is little difference between warm-up and exercise for a non-competitive recreationally active individual. Where does warm-up end and exercise begin? If you are not intending to enhance your performance then it doesn’t matter in my opinion. I actually told the media it is probably good if people are performing “too much warm-up” because it would hopefully mean that they are being more physically active as a result. They found this funny but not newsworthy I guess.
I’m aware that almost everyone relates warm-up to injury prevention as well – but I am not completely convinced that warm-up has the potential to reduce the likelihood of injury. I know people will reference certain studies that support the use of warm-up to prevent injury but there are just as many studies that disprove the use of warm-up. I’m not saying people should not warm-up to deter injury, I simply remain unconvinced regarding its effectiveness.
Q. Was there anything especially goofy in the media coverage of the study that you’d like to set straight? Is there any question that you wish someone had asked but they didn’t?
A. I think the main thing is that media portrayed my research to convey the message that warm-up is a waste of time. This is not what I was suggesting. The study mainly proved that you can warm-up too much, resulting in muscular fatigue which can negatively impact high-intensity athletic performance.
I was especially surprised to find out how the media would take our research and my interviews and spin the information into whatever direction they wanted – sometimes inappropriately. The best example is that I suggested warm-up is waste of time or that our research applies to “pre-workout” routines. I’m not judging them for that because I don’t believe they fully understood our research and they need to sell the news to the public I suppose. However I will be even more cautious anytime the media reports on a specific scientific study/issue.
Q. Any other thoughts?
A. I think the main thing that I want to point out is that there are still so many unknowns in exercise physiology. For anyone to claim they have all the answers regarding a topic like warm-up is unreasonable. Warm-up as a common pre-competition routine is filled with popular theories that are touted as facts when there is little to no scientific evidence to support them. There is no final answer on warm-up nor are there any warm-up experts.
Tomaras EK, & MacIntosh BR (2011). Less is more: standard warm-up causes fatigue and less warm-up permits greater cycling power output. Journal of applied physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 111 (1), 228-35 PMID: 21551012