How to warm up correctly to ensure you perform your best run yet.
Do you enjoy going outside and clocking up a few miles on your feet each week? Do you currently have a warm-up routine you follow before you start each run or workout?
In this post we are going to look at
- Why you should warm up.
- Common mistakes.
- How to get your body ready to perform.
Running is one of the most accessible forms of exercise available. You don’t need to join a gym and you don’t need to buy any fancy equipment or clothing: Anyone can get outside and move. It can pretty much be personalised to every individual. For example, you could just go out and walk for a few laps around the block, or you could enter a timed event. Most towns and cities will hold weekly park runs where you can get your efforts timed and officially marked. You can go it alone in your lunch break or join your local running club for advice and support. There are lots of free online resources from ‘couch to 5k’ to ‘running your first marathon’ you can use to get you up and mobile.
With that being said, there is also a lot of ‘old school’ methodology with running. As much as it is as simple as get up and move, there are some things to consider to ensure your runs are safe and effective.
Most of the information provided in today’s blog will also be relevant to general working out, not just running. However, we have tailored the specific content to focus on running.
Even if you’ve never exercised before, you will have heard of a warm-up. The main purpose of a warm-up is to ready your body for the activity you are about to perform. The warm-up will not only help you prevent injury but also increase session performance. A good warm up will include the following:
- Raise the heart rate steadily from at-rest level to the required level for the exercise.
- Raise the body’s core temperature.
- Ready the muscles and joints for the specific exercise you are about to perform.
There are two common mistakes we tend to see with warm-ups, both in the gym and in general.
The first mistake we see is not making the warm up specific to the activity you are about to perform. You may consider 5 minutes of peddling on a stationary bike as a warm-up. Yes, it will raise your heart rate and get some blood in your legs, but that doesn’t tick the other boxes of the warm-up requirements.
The second mistake we see is performing stretching as a warm-up. “But hold on a second, I still remember from PE at school we were told to stretch to get the muscles ready. Surely that’s the right thing to do?” Well, yes and no…..
The important thing to understand is that there are different types of stretching. Primarily, ‘static’ stretching and ‘dynamic’ stretching. They are both useful. But understanding the difference between the two will help you choose when to use each of them. It will also help you understand why we avoid using them at certain times.
Static stretching is the process of holding a set position for a period, usually between 20-60 seconds.
The goal is to elongate the muscle fascia (the skin of the muscle) and help increase the flexibility of the muscle itself. Static stretching is something than can be done daily to help improve general flexibility. It can also be used after exercise, along side foam rolling (discussed later) to help flush lactic acid out of muscles as well as being a great cool down activity.
However, performing static stretching BEFORE exercise can not only hinder performance but also increase the risk of injury.
When you hold a static stretch, you’re taking the muscle to its maximal safe range of flexibility. That requires the muscle to ‘turn off’. In doing this, we are also getting the nervous system to relax. This is counter productive to the point of a warm-up. We want the central nervous system to be as awake as possible to increase performance.
In general, the old school reasoning to performing static stretching during a warm-up was to reduce the risk of injury. However, there is no proof that performing static stretching before exercise decreases risk of injury, increases performance or reduces post exercise soreness.
In terms of specifics for running, one study found that performing static stretching during a warm-up decreased sprint time over a 30 meter distance. Its not just sprinting that static stretches effects. Performing static stretching during a warm-up protocol decreased distance covered in 30 minutes. Not only that, but that same study also found that it increased the energy cost of exercise. This means that the participants became less efficient during the exercise.
Dynamic stretching is in direct contrast to static stretching. It requires you to perform active movements that prime the body ready of activity. These may include movements that mimic some elements of the activity you are about to perform. The goal of these dynamic stretches or mobilisation drills are not only to get the blood pumping into the muscles but also help ‘wake up’ the joints to their full range of motion and prime the central nervous system gradually into the full activity.
Specifically for running, I’ve created this drill below:
- Sprinter lunges – step back into a deep lunge, and as you step back up, fire your knee up into the air. 10 reps per leg.
- Leg swings side-side – for this one you are best to use a chair or wall to stabilise you. Facing the support, step back so you’re at a slight angle. Keep your torso, hips and the knee of the standing leg facing the chair. With the moving leg, kick it across your body then throw it away from your centre. Only move as far as your muscle’s flexibility will allow whilst keeping the starting posture. 10 reps per leg.
- Leg swings front-back – using a chair to stabilise you, keep your torso upright. Try and keep your moving leg straight and focus on driving the heel of the moving leg backwards, then kick it up forward as far as comfortable. Do not attempt to kick as high as possible, just as far as the muscles will allow whilst keeping your standing leg straight and torso upright. 10 per leg.
- Heel flicks/ butt kicks – standing tall, place the back on your hands on your backside. Keep your torso upright, and using a flicking motion, as if trying to aggressively get something off the ball of your foot, attempt to kick the palms of your hands. 10 kicks per side.
- Core rotations – bring your hands to your chest and lift your elbows to shoulder height. The object of the movement is to turn your torso to face behind you. To do this you will have to have a slight bend in your knees, and as you throw your torso around, you will need to pivot on the ball of the outside foot. So if you’re turning to the right, the left foot will pivot on the ball of the foot. Try and turn as far round as you can. Then repeat the motion to the other side. 10 rotations per side.
- Arm circles – keeping your core tight and torso upright, keep your arms out straight and make as big a circle as possible. Imagine a pen is tied to the tip of your index finger, with every rep try and draw the biggest circles that you can. 10 circles forward, 10 circles backwards.
Performing this warm-up drill should take roughly 3 minutes to complete. Each exercise should be performed back to back as a circuit. If necessary, you can perform this circuit a few times. The only ‘equipment’ requirement may be a chair, bench or wall to help keep balance for the leg swings.
Those of you who regularly exercise will probably have heard of foam rolling. And those of you who do it may have just felt a shiver go down your spine. In essence, the use of the foam roller is a way for you to perform sports massage upon yourself. The idea is that you pin a specific muscle by laying it on top of the roller, and using your own weight to apply pressure, you move across the length of the muscle. If you’ve ever received a sports massage or used a foam roller, you will know this experience isn’t the most pleasant one to willingly endure. But with that being said, the benefits of using a foam roller outweigh the discomfort.
Foam rolling is an excellent choice to incorporate both before and after exercise. Implemented before you exercise it can help to stimulate blood flow into the muscle, improve range of motion and increase flexibility of the muscle as it actively stretches the muscle fascia (skin). Post exercise, the foam roller can help move fluids and lactic acid out of the belly of the muscle and potentially help increase speed of recovery and reduce muscle soreness. Usually people will use the foam roller post workout to pinpoint what is felt as a knot or lump in the muscle in an attempt to loosen it.
Run specific foam rolling
I’ve called it run specific as it targets the muscles that are primarily active as you run. However, this would also be useful for a lower body dominant workout. The general idea is to slowly and continually move up and down the length of the muscle for 5-7 passes. If you find a knot, sit the knot on top of the roller. Hold that position and control your breathing (2-3 seconds in, 2-3 seconds out). Warning! This will be uncomfortable. As you breathe out, try to add a small amount of extra pressure onto the knot. When you reach a 7 out of 10 for discomfort, begin to make small forward and backward movements for up to 10 mini pass overs in total. The following areas are where you want to target:
- Calves – If you need to apply more pressure, cross the resting ankle over the top of the leg being rolled. Point your toes at 10 o’clock for 3 rolls, 12 o’clock for 3 rolls then 2 o’clock for 3 rolls.
- Hamstrings – again, if you need to create more pressure, place the non-working leg over the working leg to generate more downward pressure on the roller.
- Glutes – works best with a tennis ball. Sit on the floor and bring your feet so they are flat on the floor (as if performing a sit up). Cross the ankle of the working side across the knee of the supporting leg. Place the tennis ball into the biggest part of the muscle belly of your glute. Rather than moving up and down, perform circular motions to get the roll.
- Quads – Laying face down, place the roller about an inch above the knee cap. Roll up to your hip and back. If you need more pressure, cross the resting legs ankle over the working leg.
- Upper back – laying in a sit up position, place the roller about two thirds of the way up your back. Starting with your hands in your lap, keep your arms straight and raise them up and over your head trying to get your hands to the floor. Reverse the motion to generate your roll action.
Which foam roller?
There are lots of different foam rollers on the market. A basic cylindrical roller can be bought at most sports stores. One which has a smooth surface is perfectly good for someone new to foam rolling. However, you can get plenty now with different styles of nodules and grooves on the surface. These are also good to use. You can also use the likes of a tennis ball or lacrosse ball – the smaller and harder the surface, the deeper the massage. Although this may work for smaller muscles groups, for your major ones, a normal foam roller will be more than enough.
Starting your run
OK, so you’ve done your foam rolling and you’ve done your dynamic stretch circuit. It’s time to start your run. But what’s the best way? As simple as it sounds, you should aim to start with a walk, then over a few minutes build into your pace. This will depend on your fitness and experience level, as well as what ‘type’ of run you are performing. Let’s assume you’re going to do a 5k pace run. You’re going to want to start with a brisk walk, then break into a short burst jog. After about a minute or two, drop back to a walk and consider how you feel. Do any of your muscles still feel tight? If so, do a few more of the dynamic stretches. However, if all is good, then build yourself back into your pace work and continue with your run.
Have you previously been someone who would maybe do a few static stretches then go straight into your run? You will find that following the above routine, you will get into your pace quicker. And it should feel more comfortable as your muscles will be more supple and supplied with energy.
Cool down and recovery
Wait a minute, I thought this article was about warming up? Why are we now talking about the cool down? Well, firstly, it’s because the cool down is as important as the warm-up. By just stopping your work out and not allowing your heart rate and blood pressure to drop to baseline, you can run the risk of causing injury to yourself.
In the opposing function of the warm-up, we want to make sure to keep the muscles supple to allow the by-products of exercise, namely lactic acid, to drain out of the muscles. If you are someone who works out several times per week, the speed of recovery is important to allow you to perform optimally in every session. There are a few recovery methods worth giving a quick summary on:
Foam rolling and static stretching
Foam rolling and static stretching after exercise has several benefits. It can help to move the fluids in the muscle, help keep the muscles flexible and avoid post exercise stiffness. Combined, they might have a positive effect on both reducing post exercise muscle soreness as well as increase recovery times. There is a reason I say they ‘might’ give these results. Although they are regularly implemented recovery methods used by many individuals and athletes who report experiencing those outcomes, there haven’t been any scientific studies to back up the claims.
Post exercise nutrition
Making sure you get a solid meal in you within the first hour after exercise is important to start the recovery process. Try to consume around 20g of protein with 30-40g of carbohydrates to refuel the body and begin the muscle recovery process.
Your body consists of at least 50% water. As you exercise, your core temperature rises, and you will also sweat. This will cause you to become dehydrated. A general guide of consuming 2 litres per day is best advised. Ensure to drink sporadically throughout the day.
You may not have heard of curcumin, but it’s the key compound in Turmeric. This Asian spice holds many health benefits but, more notably, it is beneficial for inflammation. Consuming curcumin post workout reduced muscle soreness and decreased muscle damage
What about ice baths or cold therapy?
Cold therapy, or cryotherapy, such as sitting in a bath of cold water and ice cubes, was initially used to help speed up recovery and reduce fatigue and soreness in the body. Submerging the body in cold water would constrict capillaries and help force fluids out the muscles. As the body warms back up after getting out of the cold, the increase in temperature increases blood flow and begins to shuttle nutrients to the muscles. This is in order to begin the recovery process.
However, although using cold water baths post workout does reduce the perceived level of muscle soreness, they hindered muscle fibre growth and muscular strength development.
Cryotherapy has been shown to have some positive effects however. This is mainly when used in injury recovery or pain management for joint issues, such as arthritis. However, these results require the use of proper cryotherapy chambers, which drop to below -160 degrees.
The protocols provided above do not just provide benefits for runners. Any form of workout would benefit from a proper warm up and cool down. We have done previous articles on getting ready to work out and getting ready to recover
Using the right warm up protocol will improve performance and decrease risk of injury. This sentiment can only be echoed with regards to the cool down and recovery process.