Running is an activity that requires warm-up preparation as it gives your body the chance to prime itself for the run to come. These tips will help you as you start to get into running and help you to warm up prior to a a run, and stretch and cool down afterwards.
You need to know that running is a demanding activity and that it’s important to prepare for each run, physically and mentally, rather than launching straight in. This is what a ‘warm-up’ is all about. It gives your heart and lungs — as well as the muscles and joints — a chance to get primed for the activity to come. Equally, once the body has been firing on all cylinders during your run, you don’t want to stop suddenly and fling yourself back on the sofa. The purpose of the ‘cool-down’ is to gradually return the body to a resting state. Then, once you’ve finished your run, you need to stretch out the muscles, to counteract the repetitive shortening actions involved in running.
These three procedures are not just an optional add-on to running, they are essential in getting the most out of your running experience and minimizing your risk of discomfort or injury. So make sure that when you schedule a run, you allow time to warm-up, cool-down and stretch, too.
The running warm-up
The two primary objectives of a warm-up are to raise body temperature and heart rate. All the weird and wonderful chemical reactions that happen in the body to release energy for activity take place when the cells are at a specific temperature, which is higher than at rest. Muscles are more pliant and less liable to tear when they are warmer, too. The warm-up period also activates the neuromuscular pathways (the brain to body communication lines), so that your running is more coordinated and energy-efficient. This links in with getting psychologically primed for activity, too — the few minutes you spend warming-up give you a chance to get mentally prepared for the challenging run ahead.
Muscles are more pliant and less liable to tear when they are warmer.
The first stage of the warm-up is to get your joints moving. Gently take each of the major joints (the neck, shoulders, spine, hips knees and ankles) through its full range of motion — for example, roll the shoulders all the way around, bend and extend the knees fully, circle the ankles. This helps to lubricate the joint surfaces so that movement is more comfortable, smooth and safe. Don’t swing or yank your limbs, though — keep everything very gentle and easy.
Next, to raise body temperature and heart rate, you need to perform some gentle aerobic activity for about five minutes. This could be a mix of brisk walking, marching on the spot, knee lifts and side stepping, stair climbing and very gentle jogging. If it’s cold and wet outside, it’s preferable to do your warm-up indoors. Finally, start your run at a slow jog, and gradually work up to your desired pace.
The cool-down after a run
Once you’ve completed your run, slow down to a comfortable jog for a couple of minutes and then break into a walk. This gradual deceleration gives your body a chance to redirect blood from the working muscles, so that you don’t end up feeling giddy or nauseous when you stop moving. It also helps to clear waste (the by-products of metabolism) from the muscles, hastening their recovery and reducing the chances of feeling achy or stiff the following day. You can stop completely when your breathing and heart rate are well on their way back to normal — usually after 2 to 5 minutes.
The running stretch
Now it’s time to stretch. It’s important to do this to maintain your flexibility and suppleness, as running will make certain muscles shorter and tighter over time, hampering your performance and increasing the likelihood of you sustaining an injury. If you prefer, you can grab a quick shower first and put some comfy clothing on but don’t leave it more than about 20 minutes, or your body temperature will have dropped too far. Hold each of the five stretches below for 20 to 30 seconds and aim to repeat each one twice, finishing with the lower back exercise. Breathe normally as you stretch and if you feel the muscle you are working ‘give’ a little, take the stretch a little further. It should be a sensation of lengthening, rather than of pain.
It’s important to maintain your flexibility and suppleness, as running will make certain muscles shorter and tighter over time.
Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
Stand face-on to a support between knee and mid-thigh height. Extend one leg and place it on the support, with the foot relaxed. Your supporting leg should be perpendicular to the floor. Now hinge forward from the hips (don’t round the back), keeping the pelvis level and the knee of the extended leg straight. Feel the stretch along the back of the supported thigh. Now slightly bend the knee and repeat the stretch. Swap sides.
Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
Stand tall with feet parallel and then lift your right heel, taking your right hand behind you to grab the foot. Bring the pelvis in to a neutral position (tuck the tailbone under) and gently press the foot into your hand, keeping the knee pointing downwards. It doesn’t matter if your stretching thigh is in front of the supporting one, as long as you feel a stretch. Swap sides.
Hip flexors (front of the hip)
From a lunge position, with the left foot forward, take your right knee to the floor with the lower leg extended behind it (the knee well behind the hip) and the toes facing down. Tighten the tummy muscles and extend forwards from the hips, until your left knee is at 90 degrees. You should feel a stretch along the front of the hip joint and thigh. Swap sides.
Calves (back of the lower leg)
Stand facing a support, feet a stride length apart with back leg straight and front leg bent. Press the back heel into the floor so that you experience a stretch in the middle of the calf muscle. Hold. Now bring the back leg in a little, bend the knee and flex the hips, so that the stretch moves down to the lower part of the calf and Achilles tendon. Swap sides.
Hips and glutes (bum and outside of thighs)
Sit against a wall with legs outstretched. Cross your right foot over your left thigh and put the foot flat on the floor. Now take your left arm around the right knee and gently pull it around towards the shoulder (rather than hugging directly to chest), sitting up tall. Swap sides.
Cat stretch (to stretch out the lower back)
Kneel on all fours with hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Take a breath and as you exhale, carefully round your back like an angry cat, drawing up the abdominals and allowing the head to drop. Take a breath and then as you exhale, pass back through the neutral position into an arch, lengthening from crown to tailbone like a cat stretching. Round and arch slowly three times.