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The Role of Warm Up, Cool Down & Stretching

Warming Up

The aim of the warm-up is to prepare the mind, heart, muscles and joints for physical activity. Warming up helps to mobilise the joints and reduces the chance of injury to players. Prior to competition, how well the warm-up is organised can have a significant impact (physically and psychologically) on the team's performance.

There are four stages to a complete warm-up:

  1. Aerobic exercise: 5-10 minutes of non-specific exercise, e.g. light jogging, to bring the body up to its optimum working temperature. Light sweating is usually a good indication of a sufficient aerobic component.
  2. Mobility exercises: stretch, taking the body through the full range of movement, beginning with general stretches and ending with more-specific stretches.
  3. Preparation for contact: slowly introduce body contact, progressively increasing the intensity.
  4. Specific exercises: practise the basic movements and skills of rugby using simulated skill drills.

The length of warm-up prior to stretching will depend on the temperature. Generally 5-10 minutes of aerobic exercise is sufficient, however cold days may require longer. While warming up is essentially a team activity, the coach should also allow time for individual stretches and warm-up activities. For example, some players may be recovering from injury while others may have specific needs to attend to, such as tight hamstrings. Work out a warm-up routine that meets everyone's needs, varying the stretches and warm-up drills to prevent boredom.

Cooling Down

Cooling down is an important but often neglected part of training and competition. The aim of the cool-down is to aid recovery by gradually returning the body to its resting state. The length of the cool-down depends on the intensity of the workout. Generally 5-10 minutes of low-intensity exercise is sufficient. An active cool-down will also help flush waste products such as lactic acid out of the muscles, reducing stiffness.

Stretching muscles during the cool-down is also important, as cooling muscles shorten rapidly, potentially reducing flexibility. During the cool-down is the optimal time for players to work on improving their flexibility.

Stretching

Stretching is essential to improving flexibility. Regular stretching lengthens the muscles and tendons around a joint thereby increasing the range of movement available. The greater the range of movement the more effective the player's performance and the less chance there is of injury (although it is possible to be too flexible in some cases).

Stretching should be performed before and after any physical activity and during any prolonged hold-up in a game or exercise session. During the warm-up, stretching prepares the joints, muscles and connective tissue for physical activity. During the cool-down, stretching aids recovery by helping to reduce muscle stiffness and soreness and prevent muscle shortening.

Methods of Stretching

Static stretching involves placing a near maximum stretch on a muscle and holding it for 10-30 seconds. The sensation during the stretch should be of a mild tension which should reduce during the stretch. After the first stretch the player should relax and then move into a position of greater stretch. Never bounce during this type of stretch.

PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching involves a static contraction of an already stretched muscle. During PNF stretching the muscle is taken to a position where it is stretched, the player performs a static contraction, and then the muscle is stretched further.

This should be repeated at least three times. Athletes recovering from injury should avoid this type of stretching as placing a maximal stretch on a damaged or recovering muscle may cause further injury.

Ballistic stretching involves increasing the range of movement by dynamically forcing the joint to adopt a greater joint angle (usually by bouncing). Performed incorrectly, the player risks tearing tendons and muscle fibres. This type of stretching should be avoided or treated with extreme caution.

Guidelines For Stretching

  • Always warm up before you start stretching.
  • Stretch both before and after physical activity.
  • Stretch gently and slowly.
  • Breathe slowly and rhythmically as you stretch.
  • Stretch to slight discomfort but never to the point of pain.
  • Stretch alternate muscle groups.
  • Begin with general stretching and then more specific.
  • Never force a stretch or stretch rapidly.
  • In some events, over-stretching can lead to poor performance.
  • During the cool-down is the optimal time for flexibility training.