Today we’ll be talking about a simple way you can boost your performance by up to five percent. If this performance enhancement sounds small, consider that improving an 11.0 second 100 meter dash by five percent would bring your time down to a 10.45. This video will cover what you can do to improve performance in your training sessions and competitions, and give some basic guidelines as to how best you can implement this as soon as today.
Personally I have noticed when I stay disciplined and do this properly, I tend to see faster times in practice and at track meets. My fastest days on the track and strongest days in the gym have all been preceded by doing this one thing effectively.
Now I am sure you’ve heard of post-activation potentiation, and that is not exactly what we are referring to today, but it is related. Studies have been done which look at how performance in some exercise compares to performance in an exercise which was preceded by some other exercise. Some research will compare jump performance with and without a heavy back squat prior to the jump test, others might use a drop-jump prior to a sprint, or some other similar setup.
The results from this research has been mixed, but there is a tendency to see performance improve in the tested exercise when preceded by another exercise. For a long time researchers assumed that this was due to potentiation effects, where the first exercise excites the bodily systems, essentially revving up your engine and improving performance on the subsequent test.
So while it may be possible that there is some unique and important process related to post-activation potentiation which may be improving performances in these studies, there may be a more simple reason for these performance improvements.
Can you guess what it is? It is the warm up effect.
Warming Up Improves Performance
Now, if you are an experienced athlete, it is likely intuitive and obvious that warming up can improve your performance. Anybody who has been training for a while knows that their ability to perform changes drastically from the moment they show up to train to the moment they are done with their warm up.
I often record my fastest times in training at the end of my training sessions, likely as a result of that being the point in the workout where I am the most warmed up.
What Happens When We Warm Up?
Body Temperature Changes
As suggested by the term itself, warming up induces a temperature increase, both locally in muscles and centrally in your core temperature. It can take up to 30 minute to raise your core temperature, while individual muscles tend to warm up more quickly.
Increasing your core and muscle temperature can have a significant impact on force production.
A study by Anthony Blazevich states the following:
“Based on potential temperature changes of 0.3–0.9°C then, one might expect an increase in muscle power of at least 1–5%, but possibly up to 10%, to result from an increase in muscle temperature alone.”
That is to say athletes can expect to see serious improvements in force production by temperature changes that are smaller than one degree celsius. It is believed that the benefits of increased muscle temperature are particularly relevant for athletes who rely on speed and power, as suggested by the following quote from the same research:
“...temperature changes might explain velocity-dependent effects, such as the greater increases seen in faster (180°·s−1) versus slower (60°·s−1) speed knee extensor torque after an isometric conditioning activity…”
Muscle Activation & Changes In Muscle & Cellular Water Content
Other effects of a proper warm up include changes in muscle activation, as well as changes in the water content of muscles and other cells.
Once again references Blazevich:
“...changes in muscle temperature, muscle/cellular water content, and muscle activation may at least partly underpin voluntary force enhancement…”
When we warm up, it is believed that we see shifts in water content into intracellular spaces. These changes have shown at least in a preliminary sense to be able to increase muscle contraction force and muscle shortening velocities.
It has been shown by Heckman & Enoka that high intensity exercise itself increases neural drive and therefore muscle activation, helping to improve muscular force production and rate of force development.
Motor Learning Effects
Last but certainly not the least important, is that performing a proper warm up has a motor learning effect, in that the exercises you perform while warming up can benefit (or possibly hurt) your performance in subsequent exercises as your brain adjusts to the movements it is exposed to.
If you are warming up for a 100 meter dash sprint, performing different drills, accelerations, and build up sprints can tune your brain into the motion of sprinting better than if you simply rode a stationary bike for 30 minutes.
We want to use the warm up to physically warm up and prepare our body for the task at hand, but we also want to warm up our brains to hone our technique, optimize our movement rhythms, and as a whole get the body and brain into the best patterns of movement possible so we can replicate that during our important sprints or competition.
How To Properly Warm Up
As we can hopefully all agree that the warm up is an integral part of you performing at your best, logically the question arises as to how we can best set up our warm up to be effective at improving our performance.
There are a couple general guidelines to follow in this regard:
- Progress from general to specific.
- Progress from low intensity to high intensity.
General to Specific
The first part of the warm up can be very general in nature. This may include 5 to 10 minutes of jogging or brisk walking, skips with different directions and arm actions, ground based activation and mobility exercises, and other general exercises such as squats, lunges, good mornings, crunches, etc. I also like to use a foam roller early in my warmup, as I feel it helps improve my mobility and mitigate nagging aches.
As you go through the warm up, the exercises should first be general, progressing toward specific exercises later. You may start with jogging, squats, and ground based mobility, but then progress into sprint drills that mimic sprinting, topping off the warm up with sprints at various distances.
Low Intensity to High Intensity
Early in the warm up, exercises can be performed at lower intensities, increasing the intensity as your warm up progresses. If you like to use squats and jump squats in your warm up, you would be best served to perform the regular squats earlier in the warm up and the more intense jump squats later in the warm up. Similarly, you may perform lunges first before progressing into bounding activities.
Early the the warm up you can jog around the track, whereas later in the warm up you will perform accelerations which increase in intensity with each sprint. The first sprint of the warm up can be at 80 to 90%, whereas the final warm up sprints will reach maximal intensities.
Building A High Quality Warm Up
To get the most out of your warm ups, consider trying a setup similar to the following:
- Light jog or brisk walk for 400m to 800m.
- Skips forward, backward, sideways, and carioca.
- Ground based core, spinal and glute activation exercises.
- Ground based flexibility exercises.
- Ground based mobility exercises.
- Walking pace mobility exercises and drills.
- Jogging pace mobility exercises and drills.
- Submaximal accelerations or build up sprints.
- Near-maximal accelerations or build up sprints.
This approach to warming up follows the guidelines of general to specific and low intensity to high intensity. I like to use this ascending style of warm up with most athletes, but might modify things slightly with an athlete who is particularly prone to pre-race anxiety.
For nervous athletes, the highest intensities can be achieved about 75% of the way through the warm up, followed by some lower intensity activities to calm their mind and prevent them from being overly excited and hurting their ability to perform.
Also, on days where I am training but the goal is recovery rather than a stressful training load, I may limit the intensities of the warm up so that the session as a whole is not stressful and thus can facilitate recovery.
Where Can I Find Good Warm Ups For Sprinting?
All of the programs I sell come with thorough warmups that you can use in your training, or you can use those exercises to build your own warm up progression. You can also check out all of these exercises on my Warmups YouTube Playlist.
Blazevich AJ, Babault N. Post-activation Potentiation Versus Post-activation Performance Enhancement in Humans: Historical Perspective, Underlying Mechanisms, and Current Issues. Front Physiol. 2019 Nov 1;10:1359. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.01359. PMID: 31736781; PMCID: PMC6838751.
Heckman CJ, Enoka RM. Motor unit. Compr Physiol. 2012 Oct;2(4):2629-82. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c100087. PMID: 23720261.