Warm-up and cool-down for runners are both are massively overlooked, often due to tight schedules which see us dashing off to work and squeezing a run in whenever we can. Skipping either of these important parts can easily lead to injury at worst and reduced performance at best.
Warm-up for Runners
For some people, a warm-up will consist of a few static stretches, whilst others may just start their run at a nice slow pace until they’re warm. Neither are really sufficient to help prevent an injury in those first few meters (muscle strains to the calves / glutes / hamstrings etc are most common), or to make sure you get your run off to a good start – especially if looking to achieve a certain pace.
If you always find that the first 10 minutes of a run are the hardest – that’s because you haven’t warmed up enough – your muscles are stiff and your heart and lungs are struggling to catch up with the sudden increased demand on them.
On top of preventing injury and improving performance in the first few minutes, a good warm up also helps to develop neuromuscular fitness. This is basically how well the connection between your brain and muscles function. If you’ve read much of this site then you will know that muscle inhibition is a big problem in some injuries such as the glutes for example. A thorough warm-up with dynamic stretches can help to “switch on” the link between the brain and these muscles, to ensure they are firing when they should be throughout your run. This makes your running style more efficient, meaning you are more resistant to fatigue and less likely to suffer an overuse injury like IT band syndrome or hip bursitis!
A warm-up should involve a light pulse raiser to start with which will help get the blood pumping and lungs opened up. Something like skipping, jumping jacks, running on the spot, or if your fortunate enough to have one, a stationary bike is ideal. This pulse raiser doesn’t have to last very long – 5 minutes is usually sufficient – as soon as you start to feel yourself getting warm.
The next phase of your warm-up should be dynamic stretches. These are exercises which take the muscles through their range of motion, gradually increasing this until full range is achieved. They are more functional than static stretching and can be varied from sport to sport to replicate the movements used for the activity you’re preparing for. In the case of running, dynamic movements such as heels to bum and high knee running and walking lunges and calf raises are ideal.
At this point you may want to do a few static stretches for any area you feel are particularly tight, but this is optional. Many coaches are moving away from static stretching now as it has been shown to reduce muscle power for a while after the stretch – not that important in distance runners! Some people will also quote an increase in injury rate after static stretches, but in the research I have seen this tends to only apply to stretches held for 60s or more. So a short 20s stretch should be ok if you feel it necessary.
Cool-down for Runners
Once you get back from your run – however tired you are – don’t sit down! Stay standing, maybe walk around slowly, just until you get your breath back and your heart rate starts to come down. If you were going for a sprint finish to your run, jogging lightly still for a couple of minutes before you stop is highly recommended to bring the heart rate and breathing back down as steadily as possible and prevent blood pooling in the legs.
At this point, I would start static stretching. Whilst not recommended as highly for a warm-up, static stretches are still thought to be effective post exercise to maintain muscle length and prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in the following couple of days.
Obviously stretch all of the muscle groups of the legs thoroughly – from the glutes, and hip flexors, to the groin, quad and hamstring muscles and then the shin and both calf muscles. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat twice on each leg. Stretching adequately should take you a good 15 minutes or sometimes longer if you have particular troublesome areas that you want to pay real attention to.