There is plenty written about warming-up and cooling down. I’m adding my two-cents worth in hopes of getting people to actually do them!
Warming up and cooling down are critical in decreasing incidents of injuries, preparing the body to launch into action, improving performance, and aiding recovery and reducing soreness for the workouts to come. However, it is also best when warm-ups and cool-downs are tailored to you! Runners tend to be lazy about doing those little things that keep us healthy – injury prevention exercises and warming up and cooling down are three major areas we’re awful at, as a group. we seem to think that since we do the hard stuff – the track repeats, the hills, the long runs, etc. – then we should be done for the day. Not!
Did you know that research showed slow jogging after a hard workout removed as much lactic acid from runners in 11 minutes that a stationary individual required 25 minutes to clear. Actively cooling down also helps maintain your blood pressure and decreases the chances (though already minimal) of heart arrhythmias which can occur from abruptly stopping intense workouts.
Generally, the shorter the race or the faster the workout means the longer and more thorough your warm-up should be. And the longer the race, the less warming up is necessary. Stretching, as we know through research, does not decrease injuries per se and so they actually take a low priority in warming up. However, they can be integral to improving range of motion which can for some runners optimize stride length which is one way we get faster. However, range of motion can also be enhanced through running specific drills, which arguably will be far more effective as well as efficient. Over-stretching has also been shown to reduce power output of the muscle (think like an old overstretched rubber band); not a good thing.
- Do not stretch cold muscles.
- Run easily for a minimum of half-mile to two miles. For the more novice runner, warm-ups are still important. The adjustment for them is to reduce paces and distances of the warm-up routine. For instance, alternate walking, fast walking and jogging.
- Do some EASY stretches – or none at all if you prefer. Remember, do static stretches and never stretch to the point of discomfort or pain.
- Never do unusual/different stretches the day of a race.
- Run a bit faster and add in “pick-ups” of varied paces and distances. For instance, run 50-400 meters in very fast (99% effort) to 5k pace to your goal race pace for the day.
- Perform skipping and form drills, you can even add in a few stadium stair repeats (not before a race though).
- If you are doing a quality workout, be sure to start with slightly easier repetitions then move on to the faster ones.
- If you are going on a longer run or just an easier run, you generally should not need to do much warming up. Just start out slowly and then gradually get into your pace.
- Do not be afraid to stop along the way to stretch out some tight spots. Do not become obsessed with “not stopping”. Sometimes it is the pause that refreshes and makes all the difference in your workout.
- Develop a pattern in your warm-ups that you will adopt on race day. Predictability is a key ingredient to racing well.
Warming-up & Racing
First let me illustrate the impact on race performance with a real case study. I had one runner who was stuck running 5Ks in the 18:00s. He had demonstrated much more speed during workouts but didn’t show it in races. His feedback was that he just didn’t feel good until the last mile. He struggled through the first mile even if it was on pace. Then drifted a bit in the middle only to come back pretty well. His warm up consisted of less than a mile of jogging and some stretches. He “didn’t want to waste energy for the race” by doing more. This was a well trained athlete. He could easily do long runs of 12+ miles, running some extra miles before a 5K certainly was within his capabilites. I had him run the actual 5K race course doing a number of strides and hard pace pick-ups during the last mile of it. Then he rested a bit, and did some hard strides before lining up for the race. In one race he improved by over 45 seconds. His “average” race times went from the mid-18s to low 17:oos and then to sub-17 later in that year. Subjectively, he reported feeling “with it” from the start.
Under 5K: These distances require the most thorough warm-up. There is no time during the race to “get into pace”. You will need to hit it hard from the start. If you’re waiting until you’re warmed up to get into pace, the race will be over.
5K to 10K: If you are at a race, use the same warm-up you use in training. Do not vary routines. The shorter the distance, the longer your warm-up should be. For a 5K, I suggest running at least 2 miles in warm-up and strongly prefer to run the 5K course as the warm-up. This also gives you a competitive advantage by knowing the course. The biggest failing at these races is under warming up.
Half-marathon: Warming up for this distance is highly variable. The faster you intend racing it, the better the warm-up is needed. I suggest about a mile of running with pick-ups along the way as described above. If you are trying to finish this distance, as opposed to racing for a time, warm-ups are minimal! You’ll have 13 miles to “warm-up”.
Marathon: Unless you are running a very fast marathon (subjectively I would say well under 3:00) you do not need to warm-up very extensively at all. Jog around a bit. Do a few easy stretches. Stop. Conserving your energy is more important. This race is plenty long enough to “get in the groove” as you go along without impacting your race plans.
Cooling down should include light jogging (or walking in the case of a marathon) and some light stretching. Remember, stretches will stay with your muscles longer now that they are fully warmed up from your workout. Take advantage of this time to stretch if you like. Perform static stretching only. Do not feel you have to stretch. Know your body and keep in mind your injury history. Most importantly do not just stop your workout and head for the showers or your car and head home. Cooling down is critical in decreasing after affects of a workout and already start the preparation process for your next workout.
When NOT to Cool-down
If you are doing double workouts (two in a day) or you have repeated intense days of training, it may be inadvisable to cool-down. The reason is that the continued depletion of glycogen in your muscles is counter productive in the scope of your training program. (This is a finding and recommendation from controlled research studies.)
When in doubt how to warm-up or cool-down – ask! And if you have lingering aches and pains or find it difficult to get going for some workouts – it’s a sign that you need better warm-ups AND cool-downs to set up your workouts better. Don’t avoid this vital training element to injury prevention and better performance!