June 4, 2021

3 ways to warm up for winter exercise

Reduce your risk of winter sport and exercise injuries, improve performance and fast-track recovery with these cold weather warm-up tips.

Fact: Australians experience more sport and exercise-related injuries in May, June and July than in the warmer months. Why? One risk factor is cold muscles, tendons and ligaments, which are especially prone to sprains and strains. Simply, they are less flexible and elastic than warm muscles, tendons and ligaments. So what’s the best way to warm up before exercise to prevent winter injuries? Try these simple safeguards.

1. Boost your warm-up and cool down

While you may be able to get away with a brief warm-up in the warmer months, winter demands a more disciplined and prolonged approach to warming up before sport or exercise. A good warm-up should simultaneously prepare the body for your activity, increase core temperature, elevate heart rate, increase breathing rate and stimulate flexibility and power. Moreover, it should improve nerve conduction, which assists with fluid movement, and prepare the cardiovascular and metabolic systems to deliver blood and oxygen to working tissues - which assists with both injury prevention and performance.

Warm-up/cool-down ground rules 

Broadly, your warm-up should include movements that mimic those you’ll perform during sport or exercise and include a combination of aerobic activity and stretching. For structuring your warm-up, perform the aerobic component of your warm-up before stretching as stretching a cold muscle may cause damage. For duration, consider doubling your usual warm-up period (e.g. 10 minutes instead of five). Similarly, you’ll need to factor in a considered cool down period and regimen to help muscles, tendons and ligaments to recover and acclimatise to stopping the activity and to the cool temperature. A cool-down returns muscles to resting length. You can replicate exercises from your warm-up and/or low-intensity movement such as walking or jogging. Aim for a minimum cool-down period of five to 10 minutes.

2. Adapt your wardrobe

When you’re dedicating such effort to your warm-up and cool-down, it doesn’t make sense to undo the effects or increase the effort required by wearing clothing that exposes muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints to the cold. (It would be much like having the heater on and leaving the door open.) Consider investing in full-length compression skins or leggings and a fitted long-sleeve top, ideally with moisture-wicking properties. Remaining dry by wearing clothing that wicks perspiration will also help your body to maintain warmth.

3. Prioritise hydration 

It may sound counterintuitive, but winter brings a greater risk of dehydration due to factors including not feeling thirsty and drinking hot caffeinated beverages, which have a diuretic effect. For athletes and exercise enthusiasts, even minor dehydration may cause muscle cramps. Strive to drink water continuously throughout the day and boost your intake during and after exercise.

If you’re not sure how to optimally warm up and cool down for your sport or exercise type, consider a consultation with a physiotherapist, who can recommend a personalised program to prevent injuries and improve performance. (If you suffer from asthma or a heart condition, consult your medical practitioner before undertaking outdoor exercise in cold weather.)

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