Science is gradually proving what has been shown for decades: physical exercise delays illnesses and aging. The recent emphasis goes beyond just exercising, focusing on high intensity training. This is sometimes abbreviated as HIIT: high intensity interval training. A recent article by Mayo Clinic outlines the many benefits of HIIT. The article recommends “supervised training”, which is a safe recommendation. But it makes no mention of an essential part: Warming up for high intensity training.
First, let’s review the main benefits Mayo researchers listed.
General findings showed:
- Cardio respiratory health, muscle mass and insulin sensitivity improved with all training.
- Mitochondrial cellular function declined with age but improved with training.
- Increase in muscle strength occurred only modestly with high-intensity interval training but occurred with resistance training alone or when added to the aerobic training.
- Exercise improves skeletal muscle gene expression independent of age.
- Exercise substantially enhanced the ribosomal proteins responsible for synthesizing new proteins, which is mainly responsible for enhanced mitochondrial function.
- Training has little effect on skeletal muscle DNA energy transfer but promotes skeletal muscle protein expression with maximum effect in older adults.
To get a mental picture of what it’s like to not warm up, imagine the moment you get up in the morning. The body has been asleep for several hours. Heart rate and blood pressure have gone down. So when we first get out of bed, we’re typically at our slowest. Now imagine if at that very moment someone asked you to sprint as fast as you can. Just thinking about it hurts. It’s quite unpleasant when we get up late for a meeting or an event and we have to rush around the house right after coming out of bed. The body needs to transition from sleep mode to normal mode.
High intensity training takes your body to another level. It requires your muscles, arteries, veins, lungs, to perform above endurance level. In other words, you are pushing your body almost to the maximum it can produce, for short periods of time called intervals. It’s very surprising and concerning that many articles about HIIT training make no mention of the need for warming up for high intensity training. Not warming up could mean:
- Higher likelihood of injury. Your joints, your cardio system, all your body is not at temperature and not dilated to perform sprints and high strength intervals.
- Lower performance: as a result it’s quite likely that the intensity you are seeking will be harder to attain without warm up. Ask Usain Bolt if he’d run the 100 meters under 10 seconds right after getting out of bed.
- Discomfort: it is far more pleasant to “push it” once you’ve done a few minutes of easy cardio and stretches.
Simple plan: warming up for high intensity training
While I think warming up is essential for any physical exercise, high intensity (anaerobic) or regular intensity (endurance, aerobic), the method is really quite simple and flexible.
- Give yourself 10 minutes total for the warm up
- Do a few stretches and hold these in place for at least 5 seconds each, closer to 10 seconds. For example if you lift your arms up, stay up 5 seconds. You want to avoid the opposite result from stretching, which is your muscles contracting back like a rubber-band. By gently stretching, keeping your position stretched, and letting go slowly you’ll get your muscles and joints more relaxed and ready for exercise.
- Run or ride slowly for the remaining 8-9 minutes. Slowly means you should gradually attain an endurance pace, the pace at which you can easily speak and breathe, with your heart rate gradually elevating.
- Now, by the time 10 minutes have passed you’ll feel energized and ready for intervals, with fewer risk of injury and performing better than if going directly from resting state to high intensity.