A good warm-up prior to exercise is one of the best ways for young athletes to prevent sports injury and perform at their best, when done properly. Plus, if a child learns how to properly stretch and warm up for sports at a young age, there is a greater chance that they’ll carry that habit with them through life. 

Connecticut Children’s sports exercise technologist Michael Rieger, BS, CSCS, joins the Growing Healthy blog with advice.

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Young athletes need to warm up properly.

There are two major reasons that every athlete should warm up prior to exercise: injury prevention and sports performance enhancement. The warm-up exists to prepare the body for the more intense exercise of a competition or practice.

A proper warm up should have multiple components

A solid warm-up usually consists of a few different parts, in this order:

  • Light aerobic portion. This can be anything from a light jog around a track to some light swings with a baseball bat or golf club to a few minutes on a stationary bike. These sport-specific movements increase blood flow and temperature of the relevant muscle groups.
  • Dynamic stretching and mobility. With dynamic stretching, you actively move the body part to be stretched (versus static stretching, which involves more passive motions or no movement at all), which acutely increases flexibility before exercise. Foam rolling can also be part of this segment.
  • Higher intensity muscle activation. This can be anything from a few sprints across the width of a soccer field to higher effort swings with a bat to longer-range tossing with a football, baseball or softball. These efforts get the muscles tuned to the level of intensity that your competition or sport will be performed at.
A person standing on a track

Order, duration and intensity matters.

Generally, the entire warm-up should take around 15-20 minutes, but this can vary between different sports and with other factors like weather and outside temperature. 

  • Do the light aerobic portion first, to get the muscle temperature up and bring more blood flow to the extremities.
  • Do the stretching and mobility portion next, because muscles respond better to stretching when warm.
  • Do the higher intensity, muscle activation portion at the end of the warm-up. The goal of this last segment is only to get your muscles prepared for the higher intensity of the sport or activity, so avoid doing too many; no more than a few minutes’ worth.

> Related: Return to Play Resources for Athletes

Tips for a successful warm-up:

  • Don’t skip it! Research shows the benefits of a warm-up prior to competition, for both performance and injury prevention.
  • Dynamic versus static stretching: The popular belief is that static stretching should never be done before exercising, as it could weaken performance. But more recent research has shown no real issues to performance from static stretching, as long as it is included in a more comprehensive warm-up.
  • Don’t overdo it. At the end of the warm-up, you should feel warm and almost to the point of sweating, but not tired. Tinker with the durations and intensities of each segment until you find what works best.
  • Timing matters. The warm-up should be done right before the competition or sport to ensure best performance. Anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes between the end of the warm-up and start of the event is an ideal time frame.
  • Specificity matters. If possible, choose warm-up methods that mimic movements in the sport/activity. This will better help to prepare the body for the event to come.
  • Alter, adjust and swap! The warm-up can and should be adjusted for different situations. An outdoor run on a very cold day will likely require a longer warm-up than the same run on a warm day. Adjust the warm-up for the situation as needed!

> Related: The 10 Most Common Sports Injuries in Young Athletes

Talk to your child’s doctor about the right stretches for their body, sport and situation.

If your child has experienced an injury, or you suspect they may have an overuse injury, it’s especially important to talk to their doctor or physical therapist about the appropriate way to stretch.

Connecticut Children’s Sports Medicine has guidelines for sport-specific stretches. For personalized advice and guidance, book an in-person appointment or Video Visit.