Credit: Mārtiņš Zemlickis via Unsplash

Warm-ups and cooldowns: How to maximise your exercise and still be able to walk the next day

So important, yet so easy to forget. Here are some of the reasons why you should include a warm-up and cooldown in your workout routine.

When I first joined the University’s running club, the Hares and Hounds, I had not expected pre and post-run conditioning to be such important aspects of the sport. As I’ve learned though, taking the time to warm up before and cool down after intense exercise, is incredibly beneficial. No doubt going into the new year, many will be looking to get involved in running, going to the gym, or taking up another sport. Whatever your fitness ambitions for the new year, spare some consideration for warming up and cooling down. It doesn’t take long, but it can make a big difference.

Warming up doesn’t have to be a massive task but it gets you physically and mentally in the zone for your training session or competition. The idea is to gently raise your heart rate to increase blood flow. This raises the temperature of your muscles and allows more oxygen to reach them, which is really important as it allows them to contract and relax more easily, so that you can deal with higher levels of physical exertion, due to increased circulation, and reduces the risk of strains and injuries. In fact, a study from the Journal of Sport Science & Medicine found that a proper warm-up of the lower body can activate up to 8.5% more muscle fibres in your quadriceps. This is only going to improve performance. Additionally, through exercises like stretching, you can maximise your range of motion.

Given the wide range of body areas you can benefit, a good warm-up should include a few different actions, and this will change depending on what sport you are doing. Whenever I’m meeting the running club, be it for some easy miles or interval sessions, I like to jog there to get the blood flowing and muscles more relaxed before the real training starts. If it’s before a race I do the same thing, but might up the pace a little bit, in order to raise my heart rate and breathing closer to the levels that will be needed for the more intense run. I always make sure to stretch too, to further warm up the muscles and increase flexibility. All this should make the run more comfortable and help avoid strains. Stretching is great before any physical exercise. If you’re going to the gym or doing a different sport, you’ll probably want to incorporate more upper-body stretches into your routine. The gym especially is where it’s important to spend time stretching beforehand, as you may be lifting heavy weights. For those doing ball sports, it’s a good idea to do some light practice of the sort of motions you’ll be making in a game; maybe passing to teammates for example.

However, the fun doesn’t stop at exercising before training. It’s also important to cool down after your session. The NHS suggests that the best way to cool down after a long training session is simply to reduce the intensity of whatever exercise you have been doing. Since I’m usually out and about running, for me, this would look like a light jog that doesn’t have to be more than 10 minutes. Gradually decreasing your heart rate to normal is good for recovery and helps reduce muscle temperature, blood pressure and muscle soreness. It’s also effective in reducing the lactic acid that’s built up in your body. Lactate is responsible for that burn you feel after finishing a set. It’s produced by the body when there’s not enough oxygen for the intense exercise you’re doing. Your cooldown helps flush this out which will help you recover and get back to your next workout. For many, this might look like some light pedalling after a cycle, some more stretching following some weights or even just a relaxed walk as opposed to standing still. All these are great, and just help your body gradually return to its normal state.

I was initially wondering what I had gotten myself in for when the other runners in the club set off again not long after crossing the race finish line. After what felt like the most tiring thing I’d ever done, another run was the absolute last thing I had in mind. But the fact is, cooling down really does help. The science is there in abundance and their inclusion in your workout routine will help your body feel fresh and ready for another session in no time.

On the face of it, it can seem like a hassle to include pre- and post-exercise in your workouts, but they are worth trying to make time for, to look after yourself while exercising. They really don’t have to be much as well. So, next time you’re at the gym, on a run, or doing any other sort of exercise, be it as a regular or a New Year’s resolution beginner, consider including a quick warm-up and cool down into your routine – your body will thank you.

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