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Top 10 Applications. No. 3 Priming

This application has been about 10 years in the making and with that one of the slowest burning project areas that we have worked with. Let me start with the reason as to why it has taken so long to get it going. 

A sports scientist is rightly encouraged to get out into the training environment and see what is going on, engage with the coach and athletes and immerse themselves in the sport, event and sub-disciplines. As a part of that immersion process, active learning can really only happen with two way dialogue about what you can offer in relation to what the coach needs. Some generic questions, such as, “What are the goals of the training session” or “What is this athlete’s strengths and weaknesses” will facilitate the learning and enable you to better prescribe and advise pertinently. Some questions are best saved until you have a strong working relationship with a coach and athlete, “Coach, shall we rip it all up and start again?” is one that you need a 25+ year relationship with commensurate ups and downs, cycle after cycle, athlete after athlete, solidity that won’t rupture under such inquisition. “You don’t want to do it like that” type statements from a new team member have to be carefully judged (i.e. avoided at all costs).

The sensitivity of the topic or performance component will also shadow the possibility for intervention. The warm-up is one such component that is held with protected status. Firstly there is the ‘warm-up’ area that has highly-privileged access rights, accreditations, ring-fenced (literally), guarded policing that makes it plain to all ‘this is exclusive’. This is largely the domain of the coach, although the therapist and doctor will often be the busiest with niggles through to withdrawals to manage and sort. Alongside the pre-race pep talk (which Matt Pinsent tells the story of such high expectations of Jurgen Grobler’s rallying cry exhortation to be simply “have a good race” – brevity is brilliant, eh?) the warm-up is probably the most important job to oversee and have something to say about during the pre-race period. As such it is cherished and held as an important role for the coach to get right. Therefore, due to the reverence and exclusive importance any question that effectively probes, “What do you do in your warm-ups and can we tinker around with it?” will often fall on its arse.

In 1999, I started my exercise physiology PhD studies alongside the then bright young thing and now bright middle aged thing Mark Burnley, both of us looking into oxygen uptake kinetics. Mark was exploring the priming effect of prior exercise upon the criterion bout (i.e. the main ‘performance’, not to be confused with boxing or illness bouts). The science is sound, there is a meaningful speeding of the oxygen uptake switch-on with heavy (halfway betwix ones threshold and ones VO2max) warm-up performed just 6 mins before the main effort. Then a number of studies followed, showing positive effects upon a performance type effort. In the meantime, we had gone to coaches in the appropriate sports suggesting that we should have a look into this effect. We were rebuffed. We weren’t told as much, but the message was, “Your evidence is circumspect so this is off limits”. We then did some note taking and found that for many athletes in athletics there was a remarkable resemblance between the warm-up procedures used pre-competition for sprinter all the way up to marathoners. It goes like this, 10-15 min jog, mobilisation/dynamic stretches, roughly 5 strides – which is the term given to short sharp semi-sprints, often performed with increasing intensity for about 50 to 60 m, holding room, out onto the track, a few more strides then race.

It doesn’t make sense that a sprinter would do the same as long distance runner does it, but what is the alternative? Based upon Mark’s work we proposed to a number of coaches and athletes that they do something at sufficient intensity and duration to raise oxygen uptake to within-race levels, such that when they go again in the main performance (theoretically and logically) it would do so at a faster speed, demand less of anaerobic processes at the outset and so offer the potential for better performance. The feedback was that they didn’t want to spend all their pennies up in the warm-up for fear that they would suffer in the main performance. Yet even after describing what we thought would (again theoretically and logically) work, it wouldn’t get through the coaching firewall. The ‘concept’ just wasn’t watertight enough.

We resolved to doing some research. With the backing from UK Sport we set about getting a coach, a group of elite athletes involved (being necessarily patient all year long and taking the opportunity when it came) to undertake an 800m performance trial with and without a priming warm-up. The primer consisted of condensing the 4 x 50m strides into one 200m stride at race pace. We held the athletes for a 20 minute holding area before their trial, in order to simulate the competition scenario.

The headline difference was a 1 s or 0.8% improvement in performance, underpinned by a greater total O2 consumed with the priming condition. Interestingly, the performance in improvement all came in the last 400m where the pace slowed less than the control, i.e. coming on strong at the end. The uptake of the research findings was immediate, the coach was convinced; other coaches knew of the credibility of the athletes involved and once the practice was solidified, it was tried out for real in competition, fed onto other physiologists (one of the strengths of having a well-connected EIS network) in other ‘engine’ sports such as swimming, cycling and rowing. Both at Beijing and in the major championships since athletes have been plying this method to their performances. Individualisation is key though to getting it right for athletes, with variables such as ‘holding’ duration, pacing method, aerobic-anaerobic type and prior (previous rounds, multiple events etc) activities complicating the formula for the physiologist to unfold.

So we have known that warming up has worked for aeons, but up until just recently it has been an area of mystery and at best a blunt instrument. It was not until we conducted some controlled trials, importantly, on elite athletes and with a competition specific protocol, did the breakthrough come to application – and this approach has now infused our systems and long term-strategy. But it is also thanks to the foundation of work that we must give praise – to Mark Burnley (the ‘Prime’ Minister, if you will) and Andy Jones who have masterfully corralled this topic so well. For its clear performance enhancement, its breaching of the protected area of pre-competition intervention and its wide application to other key sports – priming warm-up takes the 3rd place, the bronze placing and a podium finish, in my top 10 applications of sports physiology.

You can learn more about how to apply your sports physiology knowledge to priming for sports performance in my pro physiology course