Running Warm Up And Cool Down - Why And How To Do It
Often neglected in our training is the warm-up and cool-down element. As runners, we just want to run! It's the same with strength work and rehabilitation exercises. The desire to run overrides the other supporting elements, even though we know we ought to be doing them. So why bookend our run or race with a warm-up or cool-down?
Warm-up is strongly advocated for the following benefits:
Injury reduction (1)
Improved running performance
Minimising discomfort from niggles, tightness, injury or chronic conditions
A warm-up or RAMP, prepares the body for the intended activity. It is a progressive build-up of movement to Raise heart rate, Activate muscles, Mobilise joints, and Potentiate the neuromuscular system (transmission of the brain's messages to the muscles via nerves). The totality of this is:
An increase in muscle contractions which generates heat allowing muscles to perform better. This is due to the cell metabolic processes speeding up which allows muscles to contract with more speed and force (2). However, overdoing your warm-up such that body/muscle temperature is too high has a negative impact on the metabolic processes (2,3).
The dilation of small blood vessels which supply oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the muscles. At rest, the blood vessels are constricted however a warm-up will open the blood vessels.
An increase in transmission speeds of the nervous system allows improved reaction and coordination of body movements.
What type of warm-up?
You can get warm in three ways. Passively via an external source like a sauna, generalised which is using a non-sport body movement, or specific.
Specific is unsurprisingly the ideal as it targets the muscles that are involved with the intended activity. How you warm up though depends on the individual, the environment, and what the running session will involve. For instance, you may warm up on an indoor trainer before heading out as it's very cold outside, or perform a longer RAMP ending with bursts of speed for a race or speed session. It needs to be tailored however don't overthink it. RAMP is just that, ramp up the intensity slowly until you reach the warmth and activation level required for the session. This could be 5 minutes for an easy run, or 20 minutes for a 10km race.
An individualised warm-up involves some trialling to find what works best for you. Some areas may need more mobilisation than others, for me it's feet and ankles, and not over-warming up so that performance is compromised. Warm up as close to the session as possible. In a race situation, this isn't easy but it goes without saying that standing still on a cold start line for 15 minutes will undo your warm-up.
With all this in mind here are some suggestions of what to try. Start with some dynamic stretches and multidirectional movements such as hip openers, Frankenstein walk, leg swings, ankle twirls, side lunges, and arm swings. Then RAMP to explosive activation, high knees, skips, karaokes, sideways skips. Finally, incorporate some strides or accelerations. These are bursts of speed of 5km race pace or quicker, or perform an exaggerated running movement for 10-20 seconds.
If you're going out for an easy run you may want to only do the dynamic stretches and then set off on your run at a very gentle pace until you feel ready to resume your normal pace. If doing a fast race or hard intervals you'll need a longer more thorough warm-up. A slow race, like a 50 miler, would not require the explosive element.
If you have an injury or a weak area then tailor your warm-up to support this issue. Talk to your physio about how best to prepare for a run. This could be simply performing a trimmed-down version of your rehab exercises or they may have other suggestions.
As a final note on warm-ups, if you're time crunched it's better to shorten your run by 5 minutes than miss out on the warm-up. A run which is 5 minutes shorter is not going to impact fitness or the quality of the session. Missing a warm-up however has plenty of downsides, or worse, results in injury.
It has long been thought that cool-downs aid recovery, reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or support injury prevention however presently there is little evidence to support this. Active recovery does aid the recovery of lactate in the blood but not in the muscle tissues. It may partially prevent immune system depression and the faster recovery of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems (5).
On a personal level, especially after an intense session, an easy run of 5-15 minutes helps me to relax, slowly cools and I feel less stressed. I feel so much better coming back indoors after a simple cool-down than just stopping. Go with what works for you.
Fradkin AJ, Gabbe BJ, Cameron PA. Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials? J Sci Med Sport. 2006 Jun;9(3):214-20. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2006.03.026. Epub 2006 May 6. PMID: 16679062.
Brooks, G. & Fahey, T. Exercise Physiology, Human Bioenergetics and Its Application. Macmillan Publishing Co. 1985.
McCardle, W.D. Exercise Physiology, Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance. Lea & Febiger. 1986.
Renstrom, P. & Kannus, P. Prevention of injuries in endurance athletes. In Endurance in Sport. Ch.32. pp.325-350, 1992.
Van Hooren B, Peake JM. Do We Need a Cool-Down After Exercise? A Narrative Review of the Psychophysiological Effects and the Effects on Performance, Injuries and the Long-Term Adaptive Response. Sports Med. 2018 Jul;48(7):1575-1595. doi: 10.1007/s40279-018-0916-2. PMID: 29663142; PMCID: PMC5999142.