The proposed routines in this article are designed to help provide a guide on how to properly warm up and stretch prior to running and what to do after the workout. There are many warm-up, stretching, and cool down routines out there for runners, as many of them work for the individual. The routines I propose are a modern adaptation of those that have been used by many teams over the years with great success. Over the years I have found that these routines have greatly reduced the amount of injury in the athletes using it, as is the intent of a warm-up and stretching routine. Some changes have been made to take into consideration modern research and expert opinions on stretching for runners.
The key thing to this routine or any routine that you choose to use for warming up, stretching and cool down is consistency. A lot of runners will suddenly change their warm-up and stretching routine prior to a big race because they feel they need to be extra prepared or extra loose. However, this could not be further from the truth. As my college coach once said to me, "If you're used to not stretching, then don't stretch." His intent wasn't to encourage me not to stretch, but to stretch consistently. Runners also are so caught up after a race that they forget to cool down, but cool down speeds recovery.
Before I go any further, I think everyone should be aware of the purpose of a warm-up and the rational behind it. While warming up and stretching are designed to reduce injury, stretching is not warming up. The warm-up routine helps pump oxygen-rich blood into the muscles while also increasing the temperature of the muscles. For this reason, a warm-up should always be done before stretching takes place.
The best way of explaining the importance of warming up first is the rubber band analogy. If you take a rubber band and place it in a refrigerator it becomes cold. Your muscles are also "cold," in a sense, before you begin working out. If you take that rubber band out and immediately start stretching it over and over you notice it doesn't have much elasticity and is more likely to pop or break. However, if you were to stretch that rubber band when it was not cold it is more pliable. In like sense, stretching and moving your muscles while they are "cold" makes them more prone to tears and pulls. Therefore, warming up helps prepare for stretching. Warming up also provides other benefits, such as:
1. Increasing the temperature of the muscles used in the warm-up thus allowing them to contract more forcefully and relax more quickly than a muscle not warmed up.
2. Increasing the temperature of the muscles used in the warm-up also decreases the risk of overstretching and injuring the muscles.
3. Increasing movement of blood through your body's tissues thus increasing the muscles' elasticity.
4. Increasing delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your muscles preventing you from getting out of breath early or too easily during a workout or event.
5. Dilating the blood vessels thus preventing a rapid increase in blood pressure, which could be dangerous, while preparing your heart for an increase in activity.
5. Preparing your body's cooling efficiency by activating your body's heat-dissipation mechanisms, better known as sweating, which prevents the body from overheating during the workout or event.
6. Increasing blood temperature allowing the binding of oxygen to hemoglobin to break more easily, making it more readily available to muscles, thus increasing endurance.
7. Priming your nerve-to-muscle pathways to be ready for the upcoming workout or event.
8. Causing hormonal changes responsible for making carbohydrates and fatty acids more readily available in energy production.
As previously mentioned, to properly stretch the body needs several minutes of warming up. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology now recommends to begin with rotations, starting from one extremity to the other, prior to a light aerobic activity to lubricate your joints with synovial fluid. In following the recommendations and warm-up practices I've incorporated for myself and my runners over the years, the following is a recommended warm-up routine to preclude stretching:
1. Wrist Rotations. Rotate the wrists 10 times in the clockwise direction, then rotate the wrists 10 times in the counter-clockwise direction.
2. Elbow Rotations. Your arms are going to move similar to a "jumping rope" motion. Rotate the arms at the elbows in a forward "jumping rope" direction 10 times and then 10 times in a backward "jumping rope" direction.
3. Shoulder Rolls. With your arms placed by your side roll your shoulders in a shrugging motion forward 10 times and then 10 times backwards.
4. Shoulder Rotations. With your arms extended outward rotate your arms in a clockwise direction 10 times and then 10 times in a counter-clockwise direction.
5. Neck Rotations. With your arms placed by your side slowly roll your head 10 times in a clockwise direction and then 10 times in the counter-clockwise direction. It is key that this stretch be done slowly.
6. Hip Rotations. With the hands placed on the hips slowly roll the hips 10 times in a clockwise direction and then roll the hips in the counter-clockwise direction 10 times.
7. Knee Rotations. With the hands placed lightly on the knees, not to provide weight but only to assist in balancing, slowly do 10 rotations with the knees in a clockwise direction and then 10 rotations in the counter-clockwise direction.
8. Ankle Rotations. While seated on the ground, place one leg bent over the other so that the area just above the ankle rests on the thigh of the opposing leg (ex. the area just above right ankle rests on the left thigh). Rotate the foot in a clockwise direction 10 times and then rotate the foot in a counter-clockwise direction 10 times, then alternate to the other ankle and repeat.
9. Warm-up Run (Jog). Depending on the training level and distance of the athlete this may be modified. The MIT recommendation is a light aerobic activity for 5-10 minutes. For the 5k Cross-Country I've had my runners run a one-mile warm-up.
While you may want to run and take off quickly, let me remind you that the warm-up is indeed a warm-up. The warm-up is also not the time to show that you're the top runner on the team. When one of your teammates or a more experienced runner cautions that you may want to slow down or it's just a warm-up, the runner is likely giving you good advice. Setting records on the warm-up is not the intent of the warm-up and could result in injury.
Why Should I Stretch?
There is no debate over the importance of warming up prior to strenuous exercise, but the idea of stretching before a run has become a debatable issue over the last few years. Fitness experts and even research has produce conflicting reports concerning the benefit of stretching. Some experts state that stretching is used to increase flexibility, but argues that increased flexibility does not prevent injuries and could even cause injuries to joints. The experts argue that increased flexibility can cause a joint to be too loose, thus making it susceptible to twisting and turning motions that could cause tears and pulls to muscles and connective tissue. These experts encourage runners to focus more on the warm-up, strength-training and balance exercises.
In addition, some experts even argue that maintaining flexibility and range of motion doesn't just fail to improve performance, but can even hinder running performance. A few recent studies have backed this notion. One 2013 publication in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that stretching decreases muscle strength and explosiveness.
While these arguments bring up several insights the research applies more so to athletes participating in events that require strength, explosive power and speed than that of endurance events. It's also important to consider whether the stretches are being done properly. Through my personal experience through running and coaching I've found that proper stretching has statistically prevented injury. The key here is properly stretching.
Keep in mind that many stretching routines are designed for maximum benefit, all of our bodies are different and the perfect warm up routine for you is an individual process. Some runners may not need much stretching after a warm-up, others may need to stretch more. You may need to adjust or modify the warm-up and stretching routine in a manner that better suits your body. Whatever your body needs are however should not be falsely used as a way to skip "the long boring stretching routine." Though there are conflicting reports on stretching, research on proper stretching routines similar to that outlined in this article has shown necessary benefits, such as:
1. Reducing proneness to muscles tearing or pulling injuries.
2. Increasing the production of lubricating chemicals that lubricate the fascial sheaths that surround and hold the muscle together.
3. Improving your overall muscle coordination and reaction time.
4. Enhancing the body's ability to learn and perform skilled movements.
5. Increasing physical relaxation of the muscles.
6. Reducing muscle soreness and tension.
7. Providing time for you to mentally prepare for the upcoming exercise or event.
Gone are the days of "hold" stretches, also known as static stretching, prior to working out. While there is still a place for static stretching new recommendations encourage what's call dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves gentle, controlled movements designed to take you to the limits of your range of motion. Dynamic stretching does not involve jerky or bouncing movement, nor should it push the stretch beyond the normal range of motion. Movements should be fluid and controlled. Here are some recommended dynamic stretches as I've seen other coaches incorporate into their warm-up routine and as recommended by Runner's World Magazine:
1. Leg Lifts. Swing one leg out to the side, then swing it back across your body in front of your other leg, completing the full motion 10 times for each leg. If balance is an issue you may want to hold an object to stabilize yourself.
2. Buttocks Kicks. While standing tall, walk forward with an exaggerated back-swing so that your heels come up to your buttocks. If this motions is easy, try jogging while completing the buttocks kicks. Complete repetitions with 10 for each leg.
3. Pike Stretch. Get in a "pike" position, with your hips in the air. Put the ball of your right foot behind your left heel. With your legs straight, press the heel of the left foot down. Release. Complete 10 repetitions for each leg.
4. Hacky-sack Stretch. Lift your left leg up, bending the knee so it points out. Try to tap the inside of your left foot with your right hand without bending forward. The leg motion should mirror that of kicking a hacky-sack. Complete 10 repetitions for each leg.
5. Toy Soldier Keeping your back and knees straight, walk forward, lifting your legs straight out in front while flexing your toes toward the air. If this motion seems too easy you may try adding a skipping motion. Complete 10 repetitions for each leg.
6. Walking Lunges Step forward using a long stride, keeping the front knee over or just behind your toes. Lower your body by dropping your back knee toward the ground, slowly. Maintain an upright posture and keep your abdominal muscles tight. Complete 10 repetitions with each leg leading.
A great video has been developed on this to demonstrate through Runner's World:
Cool Down Stretches
After working out or exercising it is recommended to stretch. Your muscle temperature will have increased, blood will have been circulating more easily through the muscles and joints, and the muscles more elastic. This is the point when you should do some light static stretching. It is important that you do not stretch beyond the point where you begin to feel tightness in the muscle. Injury can occur when you push through muscle resistance. Never stretch to the point of discomfort or pain. Bouncing is also a common mistake that people make with stretching, which increases the risk of pulling or tearing the muscle.
When stretching it is ideal to stretch entire muscle groups at a time. Muscle groups include the main muscle causing a movement along with the muscles that work in concert with it. In following the recommendations and stretching practices I've incorporated for myself and my runners over the years, the following is a recommended stretching routine to use following your warm-up:
1. Twisting Buttocks Stretch. While seated with both legs extended outright bend one knee and place it over the other leg, then turn your body so that you face in the direction of the crossed leg (ex. turn your body to the right if your right leg is crossed over the left leg). Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds then release and repeat in the opposite direction.
2. Butterfly Stretch. While seated place the bottoms of your feet together in front of you and pull your heels toward you with your elbows place just inside of your knees. Slightly lean forward towards your feet to increase intensity of the stretch. Hold the stretch for about 30 seconds.
3. Heel-to-Buttocks Stretch. Turn and lay flat on the ground face down. Bend one leg so that you may grab your foot with the opposite hand. Gently pull the heel towards your buttocks and hold for about 30 seconds, then alternate to stretch the other leg for about 30 seconds. If laying on the ground is not desired you may stand and use a wall for support. Using other individuals for support is not desirable as a sudden loss of balance could cause you to overstretch.
4. Calf Stretch (Toe Lift). While standing shift your weight to your left leg. Keeping your right heel on the ground, flex your right foot's toes up toward your shins and hold for about 2 seconds. Repeat 10 times, with each time trying to lift your toes closer to your shin. Repeat these steps with your other leg.
5. Hamstring Stretch. Lay on your back and raise the leg you are stretching in the air in a straight position. Clasp your hands behind your knee, keeping the knee as straight as possible. Lightly pull the knee toward you so that you feel slight tightness in the muscle and hold for about 30 seconds.
6. Elbow Pull Over. With the elbow completely bent, raise the arm above the head. Gently pull the bent arm over the head and hold for about 30 seconds, then alternate to the other arm for about 30 seconds.
7. Arm Pull (aka "Back Scratch). With one arm extended straight grab your elbow with the opposite hand and gently pull the other arm across your chest and hold for about 30 seconds, then alternate to the other arm and hold for about 30 seconds.
Contributed by Coach Ison