A proper warm up and a proper cool down are essential for any bout of strenuous exercise. Research has shown us for many years that static stretching prior to exercise is of little value, since the muscles aren’t warm and there is very little benefit in doing so. A dynamic warm up, where you are moving and engaging the muscles you will be using for exercise, has proven to be far more beneficial. The harder the workout you are planning, the longer and more thorough the warm up must be. If you are doing a race, intervals, or a long hard tempo-type effort, it is also important to include some short hard efforts (15-30 seconds with 1-2 minute recoveries in between) to open up the legs and the lungs. But a minimum of 5-10 minutes of movement increasing in intensity to a comfortable level of exertion is important.
What happens when we go through a dynamic warm up is that we switch our muscles “on”, increase core temperature and respiration rate, and get the synovial or lubricating fluid flowing in our joints. Examples of a dynamic warm up include:
• Cycling – pedaling at a quick cadence and easy gear for 5-10 minutes, before you pick up the intensity to a moderate endurance pace.
• Running – fast walking, walking on your heels and toes, grapevine at a walking then running pace, arm swings, skips will prepare you to start your run. Build the pace gradually to your target pace/effort from there.
• Swimming – arm circles and swings, followed by swimming, kicking , swimming with a pull buoy for 400-600 yards or meters is the proper way to start a swim workout. Again, building the pace gradually to your target pace is key.
• Strength Training – warm up with push ups, pull ups for upper body work, and either some light jogging, the elliptical trainer, or the stationary bike for lower body work.
Cool downs and stretching are the other part of the workout that are vitally important. As with warm ups, the more intense the effort, the longer the cool down needs to be. A minimum of 5 minutes of easy running, walking, biking, swimming, elliptical, etc. will help you reduce the respiratory rate, lower your heart rate, return the blood that pools in the working muscles back to the core. Following a proper cool down, then it is time to stretch. At that point the muscles are warm, relaxed and a little fatigued – in other words receptive to stretching and switching “off”. Dynamic and static stretches held for 15-30 seconds for the muscles you worked will be helpful in maintaining and improving your flexibility. Yoga and Pilates are great methods for learning how to stretch, among other things. Make sure that when you are stretching, you do not over-stretch or take your stretches to the point that they are painful. A coach can be a valuable resource for you in designing and teaching proper warm ups and cool downs.
The most important thing is that you make proper warm ups and cool downs a top priority for every workout – even if you have to cut the main part of the workout a little shorter to do so. I can’t tell you the number of people I know who have done a hard workout, skipped the cool down, showered and gone to work. At about 3:00PM they “hit the wall” and feel terrible the rest of the day and probably the next day, too. Proper warm ups and cool downs will reduce the likelihood of injury, and enhance your overall results and enjoyment of your fitness program.