Mark Buckingham column: Warming up when the weather turns cold

As temperatures plummet while we head in to winter, injuries sustained due to poor warming-up start to soar. Leading Northamptonshire physiotherapist Mark Buckingham begins his bi-weekly sports medical column with advice on how to prepare properly for sport in winter.

The dark, cold days and nights are upon us which means an increased risk of strains when you jump from the warm car to the cold pitch. What is the best way to warm-up on a freezing cold morning? With all the myths surrounding warm-up, where is the science?

Using the car’s heaters to get the body temperature up is actually not a bad start. The warmer the body is initially, the better, because more blood is directed to the limbs and away from the warm core. This in turn warms the muscles and warmth means less potential for strains.

There is no evidence that lots of static stretching - holding a single position for a length of time - is a good warm up. In fact, some theories say that static stretches can lead to more injuries if cold muscles are pushed hard. Ironically the old-fashioned jog around and easy kick-about, which gradually becomes faster and more dynamic over 10 minutes, is the best way to prepare for a game.

To be a little more professional about it, once this 10 minutes has passed and you have a mild sweat on, adding in some football, squash or tennis like, game specific movements would be useful further preparation. So for football it is working on jumps and lunges, kicks and sprint, with or without a ball – essentially doing football type movements without the competitive pressure to prepare the body for those same movements in the game.

Start the warming up process with a tracksuit on to preserve the body temperature and shed them as start sweating. Sweating is the body’s method of losing excess heat which you can use as your own temperature gauge to tell you how you are doing. So once the tracksuit bottoms start to feel sticky then you know you are warming up well. Leave your top on for the next few minutes, maybe all the way up until the game starts dependant on how long you are warming up for.

If you know you have muscles that are typically tight – e.g. hamstrings or hip flexors, then it is a good idea to stretch those particular muscles once you have warmed up. Do not force the stretching but ease into the tension. Hold it for only a short time, 10 seconds or so, but repeat it five times, alternating legs. After the game is the time to work properly at the tight areas with hard stretching.

There is benefit on colder nights in wearing ‘skins’ or longer lycra under shorts. This is simply because of the way they retain warmth in the area. Warmth means the tissues are more malleable and less likely to tear. Think about when you used Plasticine at school and apply the same principle – the warmer the Plasticine dough, the more it stretches – while when cold, it snaps easily!

Mark Buckingham is director of Witty Pask & Buckingham Chartered Physiotherapists, Billing Road, Northampton. For appointments, call 01604 601641 or visit