Ever since finishing the 2019 Philadelphia Marathon, I’ve been thinking about one thing: how I could have done it better. Trained better, prepped better, planned better, raced better. On race day, I made a critical mistake by not warming up AT ALL before the gun went off (you can read all of my mishaps here). But if I’m being completely honest, I was making that error through most of my training.
Save for a 5ish minute warm-up to stretch my calves and minimally prep my hips, I basically just took off on each of my runs. If I was doing a speed workout, I’d spend another 5 minutes running slower to get ready for intervals. And cool-downs? Never.
The nature of training for two sports simultaneously – while continuing to hold down a full-time+ job and keeping my house in order – meant that every minute spent on training counted. And while I would never advocate the choices I made to a client, I still made them myself and justified it with “I just don’t have time to warm-up or cool-down today.”
Which really should read “I’m not prioritizing my warm-up or cool-down, and therefore I’m not prioritizing my long term health in this sport.”
What’s extra funny: I’d never even DREAM of attempting a max lift without first thoroughly warming up (starting, always, with just the bar). I just wasn’t applying that to running. And while it may not have hurt me (hopefully) during training for this race, it definitely didn’t help.
Why do Warm-Ups matter?
The science behind warming up is clear: an intentional warm-up will let your run more efficiently (and faster) during your workout. It can also decrease the risk of injury. Ever tried to full-on sprint without warming up? It’s a great recipe for a popped hamstring.
There are two aspects to warming up that we need to focus on:
The first is literal – bringing the temperature of our muscles up a bit from resting. When you start moving the muscles you’ll be using on your run, you increase blood flow to those areas. With increased blood flow comes increased oxygen and nutrients to your working tissue – exactly what you need when exercising. The subsequent increase in body temperature means your nerves are firing faster and your muscles’ metabolism is increasing. All that leads to faster firing muscle fibers, meaning you’re also going to run faster. The increased blood flow ALSO lets your joints loosen up a bit, decreasing your susceptibility to tears or grinding.
The second part of the warm-up process you need – priming. You can choose targeted, specific exercises to get certain muscle groups ready for your workout. Think of this portion of the warm-up as corrective exercise.
For example, if like many runners you have a hard time firing your glutes on the move, you can take a few minutes to do some hip-activating exercises before you take off. This will prime your body to use your powerful glutes in every stride (instead of just your quads and hip flexors). If you experience frequent knee pain while running, you can add some isometric or slow eccentric knee-dominant movements (like a box heel tap) to warm-up and prime the joint for impact. And we can ALL benefit from working on some core exercises before heading out. A well-braced core is the foundation for efficient, pain-free running!
What this can look like:
Personally, this means my warm-ups are going from an average of ~5 minutes spent on calf stretching, heel taps and glute bridges to the following:
5-10 minutes of priming movement: focusing on getting my glutes firing, knees feeling happy, and calves stretched and loose. I have a tendency to walk and sometimes run on my toes, so my calves and achilles can get worn down quickly. I also have preexisting hip injuries and a tendency to let my quads and hip flexors take over my running, so priming my hips to work efficiently is key to keeping good form. Finally, years of soccer have also left me with knees that get angry. I’ve found that adding slow eccentric heel taps, paired with hamstring strengtheners (like the single-leg RDL shown) are all I need to keep them tracking correctly and feeling good.
5-15 minutes of walking or a slow jog before taking off on the day’s run: this part is entirely new to me. I used to just head out cold, and could never understand why it always felt like I needed 2-3 miles before I felt “in the groove.” It’s because I wasn’t warmed up at all! Now I make a point to move more slowly before my run. This weekend I’ll head out for a 6 miler (after building up my times over the last several weeks), but FIRST I’ll walk/jog a half to a full mile. A short, easy run means I might only walk a quarter mile. A hard speed workout? Always at least a mile of preparation.
Don’t Neglect the Cool Down (especially if you’re female)
I’ll be honest – I don’t know that I’ve EVER done an intentional cool-down. I could justify a warm-up, if for no other reason than because it felt good. But a cool-down? That just seemed like a waste of 10 minutes that could be spent on work. I now realize that thinking was flawed.
Why spend time on a cool-down? It helps you recover from your training more quickly, allowing you to get back out on the road or trail (or gym) faster.
First, some time spent on a cool down helps your body return to normal levels of blood lactate (lactate, or lactic acid, is a natural byproduct of the process used to break down glucose for energy). The quicker you can get this waste product out of your system, the faster you’ll recover, and the less soreness you’ll experience.
Second, it helps keep your blood flowing to your muscles during the critical post-exercise period. If you stop moving abruptly, you can experience blood pooling in your legs (if you ever get light-headed and dizzy right after training, this is the likely culprit). Your blood flow slows down considerably, meaning you aren’t getting as much nutrition to your tired muscles. That means slower muscle repair and slower recover.
This is EXTRA critical for female athletes. We already experience a greater drop in blood pressure post-exercise than men, so what we do right after training matters even more. Additionally, at many women have a harder time bringing their body temperature back down after hard training. We tend to hold a lot of heat in our core, and especially during certain parts of the menstrual cycle, it can feel impossible to bring that heat down quickly. The effect only gets worse if we skip our cool-down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve finished a run and felt like I could not cool down for HOURS, and every single one of those runs were finished abruptly. So many face-palm moments. For more info on sex differences like these, give Dr. Stacy Sims’ book ROAR a read. It’s fantastic.
And to put it to practice? My cool-downs look almost exactly like the cardio part of my warm-ups, but backwards. I’ll end my run by slowing down to my slowest jogging pace, then finish with a walk. It takes anywhere from 5-15 minutes, feels great, and preps my body for recovery. All wins. And then I get to eat!
The next time it doesn’t seem “worth it” to tack on the extra 10-30 minutes you need to warm-up and cool-down, remember: you’re preventing injury, improving recovery, and giving yourself the opportunity to be active for YEARS to come.