We’re all busy, right? You’re probably trying to squeeze in a run sometime before work, or between work and picking up the kids, or late at night when you don’t have to navigate crowds on the sidewalk…sound familiar? It’s hard enough to manage the act of running- let alone a warm-up, cool-down, and stretching (ugh). Luckily, I’ve sifted through the research to give you the easiest science-backed program to help keep you injury free and crushing those miles.
The only perfect warmup is the one that you consistently use and works for your body. The purpose of the warm-up is to increase muscle temperature and provide a gentle ramp-up for the cardiovascular system. Increasing muscle temperature allows for faster muscle fiber conduction and better binding of contractile proteins (more efficient muscle action). Some people swear by a set protocol of hip swings and skipping because their brother’s-girlfriend’s-orthodontist told them it saved their knees and cut an hour off their 10k time. The truth is, if it makes you warm, it’s a warm-up. It can be a walk with the dog, sitting in front of the heater, doing a silly dance in your living room, or tripping over your running shorts while you get dressed. The main focus is getting the blood flowing and moving all of your muscles through an increased range of motion.
An alternative option for warming up is starting your run off at a slightly slower pace than the rest of the run and gradually building up until you reach your set pace. This is the most effective for those short on time or who don’t have specific needs for warming up.
The need for a specific warmup becomes greater as the performance demands of the run increase. For example, if you’re running a competitive 5k where you want to podium, your mind and body need to be ready for peak performance as soon as the gun goes off. Compare this to a gentle group run that is more conversation-oriented than trying to hit specific splits or mileage.
Goals of the cooldown are to ramp down cardiovascular function and downregulate (chill out) the nervous system. This, too, can be incorporated into the workout itself by slowly decreasing intensity of the run until you are done. Other options include a nice post-run walk, static stretching, yard work, or my personal favorite: gentle breathwork with a focus on having the exhale longer than the inhale (which activates the parasympathetic nervous system).
So what about stretching?
I get asked about stretching probably 36 times per day and it is the main reason I don’t tell strangers what my real job is. Stretching has become a bit of a hot-button topic in the fitness/rehab world due to ongoing research into its effectiveness.
Here’s the deal: static stretching alone isn’t a warm-up, and you can actually strain your muscles by overstretching “cold” muscles. Stretching works by progressively decreasing sensitivity to new ranges of motion- you aren’t actually lengthening your muscles, as a lot of the buzzy articles out there trying to explain. Every time you hit your current flexibility limit, your brain sends signals to your muscles that you have entered the “danger zone” and to please stop this activity. By holding this position and maintaining a calm, natural breath, the brain acclimates to this new range of motion, and you can increase your flexibility. To maintain this new flexibility, consistency is key. Some research has shown that stretching a muscle group five times per week for a total of at least five minutes is sufficient to improve flexibility.
Another note for my elite runners out there: it has been shown that static stretching before an activity can slightly impair maximal strength and power output. This may be an incidental amount and could possibly be offset by combining static stretching with a thorough dynamic warmup, but it is good food for thought.
If you skimmed to the end to just find the point of the article, then congrats- you made it! A warmup and cooldown can be as specific and as long as you want but you can be a very successful and healthy runner with minimal effort in these areas. With a gradual ramp-up and ramp-down of running intensity before/after the bulk of the workout you can achieve all of your physiological needs. Stretching doesn’t need to be time consuming or painful, just a few minutes a day should suffice. Lastly, the need for an intense and specific warmup goes up as the performance demands of your run increase. If you have a history of injury or have specific needs addressed before your run; a specific warmup could be incredibly beneficial, and it would be a good time to consult your friendly neighborhood physical therapist (like me!).
Bengtsson V, Yu JG, Gilenstam K. Could the negative effects of static stretching in warm-up be balanced out by sport-specific exercise? J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Sep;58(9):1185-1189. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07101-8. Epub 2017 Apr 13. PMID: 28409517.
Chaabene H, Behm DG, Negra Y, Granacher U. Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats. Front Physiol. 2019 Nov 29;10:1468. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.01468. PMID: 31849713; PMCID: PMC6895680.
Opplert J, Babault N. Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance: An Analysis of the Current Literature. Sports Med. 2018 Feb;48(2):299-325. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0797-9. PMID: 29063454.
Thomas E, Bianco A, Paoli A, Palma A. The Relation Between Stretching Typology and Stretching Duration: The Effects on Range of Motion. Int J Sports Med. 2018 Apr;39(4):243-254. doi: 10.1055/s-0044-101146. Epub 2018 Mar 5. PMID: 29506306.