Hitting a high with warm up and cool down

dynamic stretch of hip flexor with a lunge

We often see runners doing stretches before or after they run.

We may ask

  1. What exactly are they doing when they warm up? Are there specific exercises to do?
  2. Is it really necessary? We are all short of time, and if it’s not needed, we could just as well skip it.
  3. Why we need to stretch again after a run? What is “cool down”?

In warming up, runners are easing their minds and bodies for the training or race ahead of them. Muscles that are warmed up with stretches and exercises can be pushed hard with reduced changes of injury. This is particularly so if they are using explosive moves.

Similarly, doing some post-run stretches instead of stopping cold allow them to bring their heart rates down slowly. It’s also this time that the body is warm and thus more receptive to flexibility training.

Some more detailed information for a warm up:

  1. Our muscle fibres usually do not fire 100% once we activate them, this is a safety mechanism to protect the muscles. But after a good warm up, the muscle is warmer and more fibres will be ‘grabbed’- this translates to a higher activation rate.
  2. When you are running fast, your limbs are moving through a greater range. When you gradually increase your range of motion through dynamic stretching, you will be able to move with greater ease at higher intensity.  For example, if you stretch your quadriceps and hip flexors to a range greater than 120 º at warm up, it will be easier to achieve the range of 100 º when you are sprinting. Joint mobility is increased, which leads to improved movement efficiency and better quality of movement.
  3. Dynamic stretching also stretches your ligaments like rubber bands. This pre- stretching prepares the body to move explosively; however at warm up they are not so stretched out that lose they lose elasticity.
  4. As you warm up with movements that mimic what you will be doing later, you are rehearsing in your mind. This mental rehearsal will prepare your mind and not just your body for the effort ahead.

The more intense the effort, the more complex the effort, the more important is the warm up!

Some more detailed information for a cool down:

  1. After an intense training, the body is depleted of fuel, and your muscle fibres are experiencing micro trauma in the form of body soreness. The fibres are also tight to protect themselves from further ‘trauma’. The recovery process can be accelerated by bringing more blood to those sore and aching muscles. Stretching and easy movement help to ‘move’ the blood.
  2. To increase range of motion, it is best to stretch when muscle is warm and relaxed. The Golgi Tendon Organ, or GTO, is the organ in your muscle that relaxes your muscle.  The goal is to get the GTO to fire, and to do this you must hold your stretch without movement for a given period of time.
  3. Cooling down helps to ‘deactivate’ the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”)  and allow the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”) to take over. It helps you to slow down time to review the efforts and also transit to the next segment of your life. Your mind could still be ‘racing’ from the hard work, and you need to bring your body and mind back to a more static state to move on.

How exactly can you warm up? Some options:

  1. Cardio exercise can get the body temperature up like jogging and walking.
  2. Dynamic stretching like leg swings, arms rotation, heel lifts to get your body ready for the explosive and efficient movement in the training.
  3. Running drills like high knee lifts and butt kick drills mimic running or the movements required in training.
  4. How long? 10min or more for warm up depending on the intensity of the effort. Usin Bolt prepares for 100m sprint by warming up for 60 minutes or more. For me, before marathon race, I do not do much warm up as I am not fast runner and i can walk and jog slowly to finish the marathon in under 5 hours.


How can you cool down?

  1. You can walk or jog to bring the heart rate down and stabilise the breathing. There is nothing wrong with an abrupt stop if the effort is that hard, however, would you be willing to get up to do all the stretching exercises after?
  2. You can do static stretches that last from 10secs to 1min as well as deep slow breathing to get the body to slow down and stretch out. These are not unlike yoga poses. .For the upper body work, stretch your limbs, and for lower body      stretch your lower back, hamstring, quadriceps, calf and ankle. It’s best to aim for a whole body stretch if possible.
  3. Finally, cool down your system by slowing down and shoot the breeze.  It is time then to review and just celebrate a great workout!

So a great workout isn’t just the run itself.  Having a good warm up and cool down all contribute to a complete workout that makes you feel great and smile!