Matt Merry CSCS, USATF is a trainer for Camp Gladiator adult fitness camps and owns SpeedWorks Academy.
Whether you are a “couch to 5k” first-timer or an experienced workout veteran, when it comes to exercise a proper warm up and cool down are essential parts of the training process.
In car racing, a warm up lap occurs before the race begins. The drivers go around the track at a slow speed behind a safety car. The lap is to ensure that there are no problems with the cars or the circuit. This prep time also allows the cars to warm up their tires, which is crucial in order to be competitive during the race. Drivers will often warm up the tires more thoroughly during this lap and check handling by steering slowly from side to side.
As with preparing a vehicle for a race, the human body is a machine that requires preparation before higher intensity activities occur. A proper warm up for any exercise routine should include the following:
Warm up. It is important to physically “warm up” the muscles and ligaments prior to strenuous activity to decrease the chance of injury. A general warm up can be as simple as 5-10 minutes of jogging. A specific warm up, as stated in Essentials of Strength and Conditioning textbook, “is a warm up that focuses on using low intensity movements that mimic the range of motion and movement of the higher intensity exercises about to be used in training.” For example, if you were about to do a weighted squat in your workout, you could use multiple reps of a good-form body squat to activate the muscles, ligaments and joints that are about to be trained.
Slowly increase heart rate. When you exercise, you tax your cardiovascular system in a good way. By doing this you are helping the overall long-term health and function of your heart. However, it is important to slowly increase your heart rate and blood flow to the muscles that are going to be used and not to shock the system by going from a resting heart rate into a high rate too quickly.
Lower to higher intensity. During your warm up, apply a logical progression from lower intensity, less complex movements to higher intensity, more complex movements. For example, if you were going to have a full speed sprint day, you could start with some jogging, slow shuffles, moving stretches, etc. Once the blood is flowing and the muscles are warm, do some slower paced sprints before reaching the desired max speed. Now you will be ready for a no-holds-barred sprint workout!
Range of motion. Using full range of motion of the joints to be used during training will not only help the joints and muscles prepare for the workout, but will also give you a better result from training. In my group fitness class, we use what I term as a “hand-release pushup” to prepare the body for a weighted chest press. In the hand-release pushup, you would lie flat on your stomach with your hands at shoulder height, but not touching them to the ground. Next you would drop your hands onto the ground and do a typical push movement until elbows are fully extended. You would then lower your body back down onto the ground and again “release” the hands by picking them up off the ground. Now full range of motion has been ensured, and the muscles have experienced a more complete training due to the resistance being maintained throughout the full range.
Stretch. Once your muscles are warm, address tightness and range of motion issues with dynamic (moving) stretches. Don't waste your time by starting with static (non-moving) stretches before you have done anything to physically warm up the muscles and ligaments. A cold muscle and ligament will not respond to a stretch. I prefer to use moving stretches, like a “Russian walk,” where my campers and athletes are killing multiple birds with one stone. This movement further increases heart rate and temperature while increasing range of motion of the hip joint and finally actively stretching the hamstring, which is a primary mover in running.
Just because you’ve run your last mile or finished your final rep does not mean your workout is over. In fact, what you do after your workout is just as important as what you do during it. After completing any workout involving cardio or weights, your cool down will have a direct impact on your body over the next 24 to 48 hours. It can help prevent muscle soreness, improve muscle strength and growth and keep your heart healthy.
Here are four key things you should do after every workout:
Cool down. There is a reason treadmills have a “cool down” setting. When you are exercising, your effort level is typically around an eight out of ten. Your body needs help getting back down to a one out of ten level. A sudden stop in physical activity can cause blood pooling in your legs, a drop in your blood pressure and dizziness – not to mention taxing the heart in an unhealthy way. After a run, slow down your stride and walk for three to five minutes (or longer if it was an exceptionally intense effort). “Moss does not grow on a rolling rock” is a saying to remember when addressing proper cool down. It is vital to slowly bring down both the heart rate and temperature after high intensity training in order to keep from being put underground and growing moss!
Stretch. After exercise, your muscles and ligaments are at a heated state so they are more elastic and pliable. This is where you can not only regain previous range of motion but also increase it. Stretching relaxes the tension from the workout and has been shown to decrease next-day soreness. Stretching maintains circulation in key areas and expedites the healing process after muscles begin breaking down. Post workout is a great time to use those static (non-moving) stretches for each of the muscle groups trained, holding the stretch from 12 to 20 seconds. At the end of some of my group training classes, we will turn on relaxing music and go into a stretch and yoga-type session: “Breathe deeply and go to your happy place” is a favorite funny saying of ours at camp.
Hydrate. Every time you move you are expending water from your body. After an intense workout, you need to replenish your water supplies. This helps decrease muscle soreness, increase strength and flexibility and even aids in weight loss. The sweat you produce is water lost during your workout. Eight to ten 16 oz. glasses of water are recommended daily. Even more is recommended with the addition of strenuous exercise.
Refuel. After really hard and long workouts —you should take in a combination of both protein and carbohydrates to aid the body in recovery and development. Timing is important! There is a 15-minute window when your body is in need of added protein to repair muscles torn down during running and lifting and carbohydrates to replenish the energy stores that the body used up during training. If you miss this window, you will feel more tired and lethargic the next day and experience more muscle soreness. This protein/carbohydrate combination can be as simple as drinking chocolate milk (which has the proper ratio of protein to carbs to fat) or drinking a post workout recovery shake (be sure it is Informed Choice approved).
Matt Merry CSCS, USATF is a trainer for Camp Gladiator adult fitness camps and owns SpeedWorks Academy, a business devoted to helping athletes reach their full potential in both sports and life. Contact him at email@example.com.