Sports Science Monthly – November 2021

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this month’s edition we look at how elite sprinters warm up, the data on whether periodization works in the real world, tactical behaviors in middle distance running, performance intelligence, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

How do elite athletes warm-up before a competition?

Quick Summary – This paper is comprised of observations of elite athletes in their pre-competition warm up at the 2009 World Championships, providing us with a unique insight into how the best prepare.

The warm up is the final step in the preparation of an athlete before they compete; as such, it can set the foundation for success or failure. Often, not much attention is paid to the warm up, which is surprising given how close to competition it falls. At the 2009 World Athletics Championships, which were held in Berlin, a group of coaches observed the final training sessions and warm ups of various elite athletes, and combined their observations into an article, Final Preparations for Peak Competitions, published in the IAAF journal New Studies in Athletics. Given the elite status of the athletes they observed, including Alyson Felix and Usain Bolt, we should perhaps take a closer look to see what the great athletes of that era did before competition.

Firstly, the coaches noted that many of the elite athletes they observed visited both the competition and warm up track in the days prior to competition. Primarily, this was to serve two functions; one, to orientate themselves with the locations and various procedures (call room etc.), and, secondly, to undertake some pre-competition training. Some of the throwers who were being observed did some easy practice movements in the throwing circles at both the warm up and competition track, as a way of getting used to the circles.

When observing the final training sessions and pre-competition warm-ups of the athletes, the coaches noticed that, with the elite athletes, very little technical advice was given from their personal coaches around correcting technical faults; instead, the coaches of elite athletes tried to reinforce the technique and movement patterns of their athletes in the final few days of training, as opposed to breaking new ground.

There is some research—both academic and experiential—that suggests neuromuscular priming, typically in the form of resistance training, within 24 hours of the competition can enhance performance; perhaps the most famous (apparently apocryphal) example of this is Ben Johnson apparently undertaking a set of heavy back squats in the Seoul Olympic Stadium just before he won the 100m final in a World Record. The authors of this article, however, note that such a practice was not really followed by the athletes they observed. Instead, these athletes typically used warm up type exercises, such as jogging, simple gymnastics, drills, and acceleration runs as a way of priming their system for performance.

The authors paid special attention to the Caribbean sprinters during this competition, which perhaps isn’t surprising; this was in the time of peak Usain Bolt (indeed, he would break the World Record in this meet, running 9.58s), and the emergence of other elite Caribbean sprinters (e.g., Daniel Bailey, Richard Thompson) further piqued their interest. These athletes typically began their warm ups with 6-8 acceleration runs, on grass, over distances of 80-100m; in between runs, they would have walking breaks. Following their progressive accelerations, the athletes undertook some passive mobilization exercises. Typically, these would be assisted by their coach or physiotherapist, often taking place on the massage table. These passive mobilizations generally focused on attempting to improve the range of motion in the back, hips, knees, and ankle joints. The observing coaches noted that these athletes demonstrated surprisingly good levels of passive flexibility. The authors suggest that passive mobility work might be used as it is energy efficient for the athlete; given that, in their observations, elite sprinters carry out up to eight starts during their warm up, saving energy early on may be beneficial.

The elite sprinters also tended to take warm downs seriously, utilising them following both training and competition. This was generally comprised of five minutes’ worth of walking and general limbering movements, followed by passive mobilization of the hip flexors and hamstrings, an ice bath, and then some gentle jogging on the grass.

In the days leading up to the competition, the coaches observed some elite athletes undertaking their final training sessions. As you might expect, these sessions were typically low in volume and high in intensity—a textbook approach to pre-event tapering. Alyson Felix, who won the 200m in 22.02s at these Championships, had the following four day competition run-in:

  • 4-days before – warm up and mobilization;
  • 3-days before – 8x100m tempo runs as a warm up, followed by 3 x 80m acceleration runs;
  • 2-days before – 8x80m warm up, 2 x 100m and 2 x 60m sprints, followed by 2 x 150m at 85% effort.
  • Day before – 800m jog, 6 x 40m and 2 x 30m sprints, followed by an extended warm down.

Tyson Gay, the day before his opening round, did a training session comprised of drills, an 80-60-50-40m sprint ladder, and a warm down of 600m worth of jogging. The Chinese hurdlers Wei Jei, Dongpeng Shi, and Jing Yin did 3 x 70m run-offs, followed by 5-8 starts to hurdle 4.

In his pre-competition warm ups, Usain Bolt showed consistency and progression. Prior to his first round, which he won in 10.20s, he spent 60 minutes hanging out with his team, before undertaking a 200m jog, 5 x 60m easy accelerations, passive mobilizations, and 3 x 40m sprints. Before his quarter-final, which was that evening, he again had 60 minutes of hanging out, 5 x 60m easy accelerations, passive mobilizations, and 3 x 20m sprints. He came second in his race, easing to a 10.03s performance. Following this race, in order to shut down for the day and prepare for his semi-finals and final the next day, he did 5 x 50m runs at low intensity, followed by 10 minutes worth of stretching. Before both the semi-final (which he won in 9.89s) and the final (where he won in 9.58s, a new World Record), Bolt had 60 minutes of handing out, 5 x 50m easy accelerations, and 10 minutes of passive mobility work. Prior to the semi-final, he did 3 x 50m sprints, and prior to the final he did 2 x 30m and 2 x 40m. Based on their observations, the authors of this article made some suggestions regarding warm ups for sprint events. Firstly, they recommended that all pre-competition tapering and warm up routines be individualized for each athlete; as is a common theme, constant refinement and trial and error (away from the major competitions!) are important. Secondly, they noted that the traditional warm up jog was beginning to be replaced by lower intensity strides over 50-100m at 60-70% of effort. Following the warm up strides, most athletes then utilized dynamic or passive mobilization exercises, after which the athlete moved into acceleration runs. These began as long and relaxed, before increasing in intensity and decreasing the distance. I find studies like this interesting, because there is often much we can pick up from the practices of elite athletes. From this study, I think there is plenty we can learn in terms of how the best taper into a competition—as well as the different approaches utilized—and how the warm up was beginning to evolve, even back in 2009. 

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