Warming-up and cooling down

Most of your workouts should be accompanied by some pre-exercise and post-exercise activity or what we commonly call warm-ups and cooldowns. Think of them as a transition into your full workouts and a transition back to a more relaxed state. Watch athletes warm-up, however, and you will notice many different methods and durations. Executing your warm-up correctly requires understanding of why you would do it at all:

One main reason is to raise the blood circulation to a pulse rate of somewhere near 130 to 140 beat a minute so that you do not have to go through the gears in your race; a second is to raise the body temperature and warm the muscles so they function more efficiently. This reduces the risk of pulling a muscle or straining a tendon. Warming-up overcomes muscle viscosity and sets you free to run easily at your best effort. – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

An extensive warm-up and cooldown are not usually needed when doing aerobic runs, jogs, fartleks and other easier runs. Ease into and out of these runs instead to conserve time unless you have a history of tendon trouble in which case you want to do some warm-up before any run. Warm-up and cooldown routines form an essential part of all faster exercise particularly intervals, windsprints, time trials and strides.

Instruction: 

  • Warm up and cooldown usually takes 10-15 minutes but there are important exceptions
  • For warming up, perform light exercise to bring your heart rate to 130 to 140bpm
  • Warm-up can include light jogging, strides, dynamic stretching, static stretching of the hip, ballistic stretching and light plyometrics and calisthenics
  • Cooldown can include light jogging, static and dynamic stretching

Important points

  • Warm up longer on cool days, much less on very hot days
  • Pay extra attention to your warm-up routine before morning workouts and races, the body’s temperature is naturally lower in the morning
  • Warm up longer if you have tendon injuries and niggles. Ligaments and tendons get minimal blood flow as it is
  • Practice race-specific warm-up routines before similar workouts such as time trials, non-peak races and PCRs

Rate of perceived effort:

1-5 (35-75% VO2Max)

Experienced competitors/elites: 

The more specific your event, the more specific the warm-up routine needs to be. Steeplechasers and team sports athletes may need movement specific calisthenics during their warm-up which would add no value to long-distance or middle-distance runner’s routine.

Elite warm-ups otherwise follow similar patterns to other competitors. Ronnie Delaney, for instance, generally jogged 15 minutes then did 5 minutes calisthenics followed by 100-150 yards strides with equal walk recovery in between. Jamaica’s great middle-distance runner George Kerr would jog 3/4 mile followed an easy 440 yards strides with equal work recovery and 1-2x 50-60 yards sprints.

Some elites use longer warm-ups than prescribed here: Grete Waitz began jogging about 45 minutes before race start, jogged for 15 to 20 minutes followed by 10 minutes faster strides and exercises before taking on her racing shoes and completing a few more strides. Sebastian Coe would spend as much as 50 minutes warming-up before cold winter races.

Half-marathon, marathon and ultra-marathon runners need a very minimal warm-up. As long as the pulse rate and body temperature is elevated above normal, half-marathon and marathon runners will be fine because of the lower starting pace compared to track races. Ultra-runners rarely need any warm-up at all. They rarely feel like any cooldown either.

Even after very long events such as the marathon and beyond pay attention to cooling down. After such events the need to keep fresh blood flowing into the damaged muscles increases. If running and even jogging is impossible, do light walking, “shakers” (shaking the legs) and other very light form of exercise.

Think about your cooldown seriously. A lot of runners fail to recognise its value and they can suffer from sore leg muscles and irritating muscle nerves. You can try to circulate the acidic blood with massage but it is far better to let the heart do it for you while you jog quietly. – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

Adaptation:

  • Improve muscle temperature, flexibility and efficiency (warm-up).
  • Raise heart rate (warm-up).
  • Stimulate circulation of blood to remove acidic blood from muscles and replace it with higher pH blood (cooldown).
  • Speed up conversion of lactic acid back to glucose (cooldown).
  • Lessen the possibility of chills (cooldown).

Biggest mistakes:

  • Not warming up and hoping for the “second wind” early in the race.
  • Warming up extensively on a hot day.
  • Warming up correctly, then stopping and allowing the heart rate to drop back to normal.
  • Warming up for too long, especially before longer events. For marathon distance and above conserve all energy possible.
  • Overstretching cold muscles.
  • Not performing your cool-down quickly enough after your workout or race.
  • Not performing adequate cooldown after hard workouts and impairing recovery.
  • Excessive sitting post-workout, get up and move around.

Suggested routines

Fifteen minutes is long enough for middle and distance racing. You should begin with seven or eight minutes at a good aerobic speed, follow with some 50 to 100 metre wind sprints according to how you feel- about three is usually enough – and then jog easily to hold the pulse and body warmth up. Just before the race, discard your tracksuit but keep moving about easily until you are called to the mark. – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

Jogging easily for 15 minutes after a race or hard workout usually achieves the desired results in aiding recovery except after races causing massive muscle damage such as marathons and races with long downhills in which case you should prefer non-impact cooldowns.

That fast long runs on hard surfaces can traumatize the legs shouldn’t surprise anyone who has raced a marathon (especially a hilly one)…The muscles are damaged and must be given time to heal. Easy jogging, or better, cycling, helps speed healing because increased blood flows brings nutrients and carries away impurities. Too much running, however, only beats up already injured legs. – Ron Daws, Running Your Best

Terrain:

You can warm up or cool down on any terrain but begin on the flat until you get a modicum of warmth into your body. Mountain and off-road runners can consider some light jogging up the hill to prepare the body for the specific movement and even perform a few easy uphill strides.

During cooldown avoid uphills and downhills which will only add to any lingering stiffness from the workouts or race.

Variations

Cold baths: after very hot races where your core temperature is significantly raised, a cold bath can be the best way to cool-down. Some athletes have copied the practice from horse-riding of simply rinsing their legs with cold water.

Cycling: increasingly athletes are looking for cooldown routines that do not add further to the pounding of their primary workout. Consider easy cycling on a stationary exercise bike or cycling to and from workouts. This form of exercise serves the purpose of flushing fresh blood into tired muscles without overly tiring muscles, tendons and bones any further. Swimming and similar non-weight bearing aerobic activities can serve a similar purpose.

Finishing strides: if you feel stiff but otherwise fine after a hard workout or long run, try doing a series of relaxed 50m strides at the end of your run with plenty of jog/walk recovery in between. This is a quick and easy way to loosen up your body and can replace a long stretch if you are short for time.

Longer strides: some runners find that the shorter strides warmup does not adequately prepare them for the anaerobic shock experienced at race start. Ron Daws would throw in one longer stride of 200m that he described as “hard but not exhausting”. George Kerr would run one relaxed 400m. Experiment with different combinations during your hard workouts and find the one that seems to be provide the gentlest transition without fatiguing you.

Hot bath: on extremely cold days before races, you can effectively warm-up by taking a hot shower or a hot bath and only minimal warm-up outside. Traditionally, athletes were rubbed in a layer of olive oil for extra insulation in such conditions. Hot baths or showers can also be taken as cool-downs after winter races to mirror many of the same effects of a light jog.

Sprint drills: the time spent warming-up can double up as time used for sprint drills and other running form drills such as high knees, skipping, and bounding. Ensure you have at least the initial 7-8 minutes jogging done before attempting any drills. For short sessions such as time trials and windsprints, warm-up can easily be extended beyond 15 minutes for additional and elaborate technique work (cones, ladders, etc.) without impacting the workout itself. Demanding drills should be avoided ahead of races.

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