Warm-Up & Cool Down Techniques for Runners

This post is the third in a series of blog posts for the Couch to 5K training program and is co-authored by Trig staff members Amanda Gebhard & Nancy Biber.

For runners, what you do before and after your runs is equally important as what you do during. Here are some tips on how to warm up and cool down effectively so that you can get the most out of your runs and prevent injury.

1. WARM UP

A good warm-up should not consist of static stretches. I repeat: a good warm-up should not consist of static stretches. What are static stretches? They are your traditional stretches that involve holding a muscle in a fixed position for 30 seconds or more to improve flexibility and keep muscles loose. However, if your muscles aren’t already loosened up from activity, these stretches are unhelpful and even potentially harmful. Have you ever heard of the rubber band analogy for stretching? This is where it applies.

Instead, incorporate a dynamic warm-up into your pre-run routine. Do about 5-10 minutes of light aerobic exercise to loosen up your cold muscles, increase your heart rate and prepare your body for exercise. Try a brisk walk, a slow jog or some other light activity. For more suggestions, read my blog post on the dynamic warm-up routine I use as recommended by my physical therapist.

When you begin your run, give yourself time to build up speed gradually. For the first mile or so (less if you are running a short distance), maintain a comfortable, conversational pace until you are ready to go faster. Make sure you are able to breathe easily and steadily at all times. If you feel yourself getting out of breath, slow down or even walk if needed.

– Amanda

2. COOL DOWN

After you finish your run, cool down by jogging slowly or walking for 5-10 minutes and then following up with some static stretches. These are best done after a workout as a form of recovery for your muscles to keep them loose and warm, to improve your flexibility and to prevent injury.

Some tips:

  • Hold each stretch for 30 seconds.
  • Perform each stretch 1-3 times.
  • Never bounce while stretching.
  • Stretching should NOT hurt. If it hurts, stop!

Some post-run stretches to try:

Calf Stretch

  1. Place both hands on a wall with arms extended.
  2. Lean against the wall with one leg bent forward and the other leg extended back with knee straight, foot facing forward and heel touching the floor.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.

Quadricep Stretch

  1. Stand straight, lift your right foot up behind you, and grab your right foot with your right hand.
  2. Pull your heel gently toward your butt, feeling a stretch in your quadricep (front thigh). Try to keep your bent knee and straight knee close together so that your posture is straight.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.

Hip Flexor Stretch

  1. Step into a lunge position with your front knee bent, both toes pointed forward and your upper torso straight.
  2. Extend the hips forward until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip and the thigh of your back leg. You can also drop your knee to the ground if needed.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.

Hamstring Stretch

  1. Stand with your ankles crossed and the outsides of your feet touching.
  2. Bend over toward your feet, keeping your rear knee as straight as possible.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.

Triceps Stretch

  1. Bring one of your elbows across your body, towards your opposite shoulder.
  2. Use your other hand to bring your elbow closer to your shoulder. You should feel a stretch in your upper arm.
  3. Hold for 30 seconds and switch arms.

Hip & Lower Back Stretch

  1. Sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you.
  2. Lift your right leg and cross it over your left leg, which should stay straight.
  3. Pull your right leg toward your chest and twist the trunk of your body to look over your right shoulder.
  4. Hold for 30 seconds and switch legs.

Groin (Butterfly) Stretch

  1. Sit with the soles of your feet touching in front of you and your knees out to the sides.
  2. Pull your feet inward as close to your groin as possible. Your knees should also be as close to the ground as possible. Hold for 30 seconds.
  3. If the stretch feels too easy, you can lean forward toward the ground, but be careful not to overdo it.

Arms & Abs Stretch

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart.
  2. Stretch your arms above your head, dropping your shoulders away from your ears.
  3. Lean back as far as you can without hurting your back. Hold for 30 seconds.

Now tell us – what are your warm-up/cool down techniques?

– Nancy

Photo Credit: lululemon athletica // introducing… ask a runner!

My Dynamic Warm-Up Routine

As a follow-up to my previous post about core strengthening exercises I learned in physical therapy, I’ll talk in this post about the dynamic warm-up I’ve been incorporating into my pre-run routine. I’ve been doing dynamic stretches for a while now, but my physical therapist recommended some exercises that involve more movement so that they are more of a true warm-up and help prevent pain during my run. Here they are:

  • Toe & heel walks
  • High-step march - knees straight ahead
  • High-step march – knees straight ahead with toes pointed up (bent at the ankle)
  • High-step march - knees facing inward (crossing over your body)
  • High-step march - knees facing outward (away from your body)
  • Walk/jog with back leg kicking your rear end
  • Straight leg march
  • Skipping

I usually do 2×10 sets of each of these in addition to some other dynamic stretches just before my run. I also start off every run with a walk/jog warm-up (as recommended by my PT), meaning I switch between walking and running for 1-minute intervals for the first 5 minutes – but the key is to switch gradually and not go from a walk to a sprint. If I get any pain during a run, I can do the intervals then as well. I’ve tried these for several runs now, and I think they really make a difference. They help break up the long runs and they definitely help decrease my shin/knee pain.

In addition, my running form (unsurprisingly) needed some work. I have a mid-foot strike, which is fine, but I’m a hard striker, which basically means I’m not graceful at all when I run. This is not news to me. However, my physical therapist pointed out that I swing my right arm a lot more than my left, which could also mean I’m rotating that side more. She suggested I take some time during every run – 10/20 strides every few minutes or so – to focus on improving my form by “running lighter” and swinging my arms more equally. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been at this, but I do feel like I’m not striking as hard lately – sometimes I would feel so heavy during runs, like I could feel the gravity of my weight with every step (not a great feeling), but that has diminished somewhat.

What do you think of my warm-up routine? Would you add anything to it? And runners - how is your form?

– Amanda

Photo Credit: Dru Bloomfield

Dynamic vs. Static Stretching

As part of my ongoing effort to self-heal my shin splints, I came across this Reddit post about dynamic stretches and decided they might be worth looking into. Although I had never seen the term before, I have heard from a few different sources that regular (or static) stretching before runs can actually be detrimental to your performance and your body. So I did a little research and came across this Runner’s World video showing some examples of pre-run dynamic stretches, and I decided to give them a try. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Dynamic stretches are a combination of a stretch and a warm-up that will loosen up your muscles, increase your heart rate and blood flow, improve your range of motion and target the muscles you’re about to use. These are best done before a workout to get your body amped up and ready for activity, since the effects of stretching are maximized if your muscles are warm. You’ve probably heard of the rubber band analogy for stretching – this is where it applies.

Static stretches are your traditional stretches that involve holding a muscle in a fixed position for 30 seconds or more. These will help improve your flexibility and keep your muscles loose. They are best done after a workout as a form of recovery for your muscles and to decrease your risk of injury. See this article for more info.

Even though I’ve only been doing dynamic stretches for a couple of weeks, I can already notice a difference. My shin and hip pain has reduced significantly during and after my runs, and I find I’m able to run more frequently now. Keep in mind it’s always best to consult your doctor or physical therapist before changing up your routine; I’m actually going to my first physical therapy session tomorrow and will be sure to ask about dynamic stretches.

What’s your take on the stretch debate? Which side are you on – or do you think it even matters?

– Amanda

Photo Credit: lululemon athletica // introducing… ask a runner!