Warming up, as every footballer should know its an absolute necessity to a footballers game for these reasons, i) to prevent Injury, ii) increase performance, iii) prolong your playing career, iv) reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
From my decades of playing for and working with numerous teams I strongly feel the importance of a warm up is not emphasised enough by teams to their players at pretty much all levels of the game. This post is here to highlight the most common problems I have experienced and my tips on how to correct them;
Number one, ‘not increasing blood flow before stretching’, if you fail to do this, you are just asking for an injury, especially on those cold winter mornings when everyone is feeling cold and tight. You need to get your heart rate up and blood flowing to the muscles of your limbs so that they warm up, loosen and receive enough oxygen and nutrients ready for the stretching and skills aspect of your warm up. I’d recommend having a run back and forth across the pitch while performing actions that encourage blood flow to the muscles of your limbs. Actions such as jumping, bending to touch the ground and rotations while running are a few that are great to get the blood flowing round your body. Try to involve your upper limbs as well as it will all contribute to the effect of increasing your heart rate and encouraging blood flow to the limb muscles.
The number two problem I have seen at pretty much every team I have played for is too much ‘Static stretching’. ‘Static’ stretches are stretches that are performed while not moving, a common example is sitting on the floor with the soles of your feet together to stretch out your groin. There is some confusion in football teams about the use of static stretching. here is what I recommend, make sure almost, if not all, of the stretches in your routine are dynamic, ‘dynamic stretches’ are basically just repetitive movements that replicate the most common action in which the muscle will be elongated during a match. A well-known example is repeatedly kicking through the air to stretch the back of your leg ‘The Hamstrings’. The reason for using mainly dynamic stretching is because research suggests ‘static stretches’ surprisingly “do not improve muscle length once the muscle is in motion“, such as during a match (Silveira et al, 2010). Another study suggests that static “stretches may decrease your ability to sprint repeatedly“, therefore affecting your acceleration and performance (Dawson et al, 2009). If however, you are intent on including static stretches in your warm up prior to a match, there is evidence to suggest that your performance should not be affected as long as you “follow-up your stretch routine with a moderate to high intensity skill based sport specific activity” (Taylor et al, 2009). an example of a ‘skill based sport specific activity’ for football would be something like a ‘piggy in the middle’ passing routine. If you need ideas or examples of dynamic stretches for football I’d highly recommend consulting a fitness instructor or manual therapist.
Number 3 is ‘poor stretching technique’. As the old saying goes: “if your going to do something, you might as well do it properly!“. Therefore make sure you are performing your dynamic stretches correctly!. A common mistake I see even the best professional players making when warming up is performing a kick through with the intention of stretching their hamstrings but getting the technique incorrect. What they fail to do is isolate the hamstring by not ensuring they keep their knee extended straight enough. Any good manual therapist can tell you that when you test a hamstring’s muscle length you must keep the knee straight otherwise you are also assessing the gluteus maximus length. Try it yourself, perform a kick through stretch allowing your knee to bend and then perform it again but with an almost completely straight knee (bent slightly to about 5 degrees), feel the difference?. I would recommend performing sets of the kicks twice, one lot of sets with and one lot of sets without a straight knee so that you stretch both your hamstring and gluteus maximus. If everyone focused on their pre-match stretching technique then maybe hamstring tears would be less common in football. Remember the saying, “Fail to prepare, then prepare to fail”, well the same saying applies to your muscles as well!. If you need technique advice, I’d recommend consulting a fitness professional or manual therapist.
Number 4 is the amount of time spent stretching, over stretching can in fact lead to a decrease in performance, one study suggests any longer than 4 minutes stretching one muscle group can lead to a decrease in its performance (Taylor et al, 2009), I would recommend around 2 minutes per muscle group during your routine.
Time for number 5, ‘the importance of a cool down’, after many studies there is in fact very little evidence supporting the theory that you should perform a cool down. As an alternative, I would recommend an ice bath or a very cold shower/bath for around 20 minutes. Only do this if you do not have any other major health concerns (see bottom of post) as it is quite an extreme (but effective) option. Or you can apply ice/cold packs when and wherever the body is sore. This will ensure any inflammation occurring in your body (which is guaranteed after 90 minutes of football) will be reduced, and trust me, if you can bear the cold it is worth it in the long run. You should notice a marked decrease in muscle soreness and tightness in the days following a match. I would also recommend statically and dynamically stretching muscles regularly in your own time. Commonly tight muscles to be aware of in footballers are your hamstrings, hip flexors and calves. The more you do when you’re not playing, the better your performance will be when match day arrives.
It’s never too late to change your warm up routine, just because the team is being told to do something, you don’t have to!, its your body!. Now you have read this post you should be able to make an informed decision as to whether what you are being told to do is correct. Take ownership of your body and make sure you are well aware of your it’s needs so that you give yourself the best opportunity to perform well and without the risk of injury.
I would also like to suggest, for all you parents with young stars in the making, that you take the time to make sure your children are being told to warm up properly. Mistakes made during the growing years can adversely affect their performance and injury susceptibility in future years at a time when they should be reaching their peak. There is nothing worse than having a career in sport fail due to something that could have been avoided if small changes such as these had been made earlier.
Who ever said that football was just a game eh?…
When NOT to use ice/cold packs, ice/cold baths/showers: Cold should not be applied to weakened individuals, Infants, people with circulatory disturbances, Raynaud`s disease, peripheral, vascular disease, severe varicose veins, myocardial weakness, high blood pressure.
Never apply cold (or heat) to: Areas of reduced sensation, infected areas, potential malignancy
References: Dawson B., Sim A., Wallman K., Guelfi K., Young W.. (2009). Effects of static stretching in warm-up on repeated sprint performance. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 12 (supplement 1), S60. Silveira G., Sayers M., Waddington G.. (2010). Effect of static and dynamic stretching on hamstring flexibility in the warm-up. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 12 (supplement 2), e10-e11. Taylor, K.L., Sheppard, J.M., Lee, H., Plummer, N.. (2009). Negative effect of static stretching restored when combined with a sport specific warm-up component. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.12 (6), 657-661.