[At least once every season, our track team gets caught in traffic on the way to some meet and we arrive with little time to warm up before competition begins. Although I still preach the importance of a thorough warm-up, I now also add my thoughts about the mental toughness needed to be ready when you don’t have time to be ready. The following piece was originally posted May 17, 2010.]
It was a coach’s nightmare. A transportation snafu had delayed several of my athletes on their way to the NEPSTA championship meet last Saturday, and they were still on the road as the running events started. I was on my cell phone, telling my 1500m runner to get ready; there might still be time for him to make it for his heat, which would be run in about twelve minutes. I had already checked him in, picked up his hip number, and was pacing in the parking lot, scanning the road for any sign of the school van. Still on the phone, I told him to get his sweats off, his spikes on, and his head in the game.
I heard the gun go off for the heat before his. That meant he had about five minutes, tops, and he would still need to get to the start, about 300 meters from where I stood. Two minutes later, as the runners in the earlier heat came around to start their third lap, the van pulled up, my runner jumped out, grabbed his hip number, and jogged awkwardly across the pavement in his spikes, heading for the track. My last words of advice were to take it easy, start slow, and use the first lap to warm up.
What makes a good warm up? Every coach and athlete will tell you that the warm-up is important, if not critical, in having a good performance. But, as an article by Gina Kolata in today’s New York Times says, there is little agreement about what constitutes an optimal warm-up, and the scientific research is scant on how and why they work.
The article points out that elite runners at the Boston marathon do little more than shuffle around for 10-15 minutes prior to blasting down the hill out of Hopkinton at 4:40 mile pace. Athletes in shorter distances do very different amounts of warm-up, with or without fast-paced running. At any cross-country meet, you can see runners doing stride after stride up to the beginning of the race. It seems as though warm-ups are a matter of folklore as much as science.
As a coach, I teach my kids a warm-up routine, as well, but I also encourage them to experiment early in the season, and observe how different warm-ups make them feel. I tell them that one important function of a warm-up is to bring them to an emotional state where their minds and bodies are eager to run, and ready for the inevitable discomfort of the race. Having said that, I hasten to add that sometimes you feel really crappy in a warm-up; but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a bad race.
My 1500 runner is only a freshman, but he has the mental toughness and race savvy of a much older runner. He made it to the line in time for the start of his race, and when the gun went off, he went right to the back of the pack, using the early part of the race to get into the flow of the race. He began to move up in the second lap, steadily gaining on the runners ahead. The second lap was slightly faster than the first, and at 800m he started reeling in the lead pack. At 1200, he was in fourth, and he kicked that last 300, catching two more runners to finish 2nd in his heat in a personal best.
I’m not sure what the lesson of that experience was. I wouldn’t conclude that warm-ups are superfluous. I was lucky it was a distance race, and my runner knew how to manage himself in the race. But I think it’s a reminder that many different kinds of warm-up can work, providing that when you finally step to the line, not only the body but the brain is ready to go.