An honest guide to warming up and down

Not sure what to do before you start to exercise and waiting for the Garmin to load up, or at the end of your session? Feeling a little sore and achy after your exercise sessions? What are you doing to aid your recovery post exercise? Getting fitter, stronger and avoiding injury is not just about your training sets, warming up, cooling down and recovery play an important role in this process.

Stretching pre-workout / Warm Up
Prior to your workout do you stand still and stretch? Copy what others are doing thinking it is correct? Research has shown that stretching does not aid injury prevention for overuse injuries (McHugh and Cosgrave, 2010). The research appears to suggest that stretches held for more than 60s pre workout may switch off the muscle and decrease strength and power immediately post stretch. Holding a stretches for less than 30s appears not switch the muscle off, but holding for less time still has no effect on the reducing the chances of injury.

*What to do: Your warm up should raise your body temperature and prepare you for the exercise ahead. Here you may wish to stretch any tight muscles that you have, but only hold each stretch for less than 30s. After your stretches, perform a few dynamic mobility exercises that target movement around the major joints to be used in your session – ankle, hip, shoulder, thoracic. A dynamic warm up is effective as it decreases the stiffness of the muscle and joints, increases nerve impulses, change in force velocity relationship (McMillian et al. 2006) increasing range of motion and mechanical efficiency (Thacker et al. 2004). Your warm up structure should follow foam rolling, static stretching (hold for less than 30s), dynamic warm up and then progressive movements that mimic your sport/goal (McMillian et al. 2006).

When doing exercise avoid just going flat out. Using running as an example, avoid starting your run at your ‘run pace’. As previously mentioned static stretching does not aid injury prevention but warming the body up, dynamic mobility, helps increase the muscle temperature so rather than starting to run at your run pace start with a 0.5-1.0 mile/kilometre run starting below ‘run pace’ increasing to your ‘run pace’.

*’run pace’ is the pace you will be running at this could be 10/8/6 minute milling. So with your warm up look to run slower than this pace and increase gradually as you warm up, up to your ‘run pace’.

Cool Down
Avoid just stopping post workout. After you have finished your training session reduce your speed and bring your heart rate down slowly to below 120 beats per minute before stopping. Just stopping is not beneficial to the body, everything stays switched on and heightened with blood lactate staying in the blood stream.

*What to do: decrease your pace slowly, same as the warm up, add 0.5-1.0 miles/kilometres onto your workout where you bring the pace down from your session pace. This will slowly bring your heart rate back down. This active recovery removes lactate from your blood stream quicker than a passive recovery (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005). It also helps calm down the nervous system helping promote sleep (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005).

Stretching post workout
Should you stretch? This is a matter of preference it would appear you should do what you feel helps you. Research states that stretching post workout may not help with recovery, but if it works for you keep doing it. Personally, I stretch my hamstrings, hip flexors, shoulders and adductors. It could be this down time that helps me recover and feel better. The amount of time spent stretching should be based on your sport – each sport requires a certain amount of flexibility you should maintain mobility at the appropriate level to your sport (McHugh and Cosgrove, 2010).

*What to do: I personally feel stretching does not have to take place immediately post exercise, but so long as you stretch the areas which you feel tight and areas you feel you need to stretch. Some areas which you may wish to stretch are the hamstrings, calfs, hip flexors, glutes and adductors. There are two types of stretching which you may wish to use static – holding the stretch or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) is the other.

PNF type of stretching is either passive or active and requires a partner. These descriptions use the hamstrings stretch of lying on your back as an example.

Hold and Relax involves a partner:

  • Your partner assists you in moving the stretch to a point of mild discomfort, you hold this position for 10s.
  • You then push (hamstrings) against your partners hand, but your leg does not move. Hold this for 6s.
  • Relax and increase stretch again to mild discomfort and hold for 30s.

The contract relax methods starts the same:

  • Your partner assists you in moving the stretch to a point of mild discomfort, you hold this position for 10s.
  • You then push (hamstrings) against your partner’s hand, this time your partner allows your leg to move slowly down to the floor. You then move back to the passive stretch and hold for 30s, this range of movement should be greater than the first static stretch.

Additional Strategies
Lifestyle – avoid alcohol, it does not aid recovery it is a diuretic and a depressant (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005). Sleep should be a priority, during sleep we release growth hormones which allow us to build and repair the body. Lack of sleep also affects our training ability the next day

Rehydration – fluid lost during physical activity should be replaced as soon as possible. During rehydration fluid containing electrolytes appear to aid recovery better than water alone. This is because plasma osmolality and plasma sodium is lowered (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005). The inclusion of electrolytes in a drink allows for the fluid to be absorbed through the intestinal wall (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005).

Underwater running – in the deep end of the pool, with the body kept afloat with a buoyancy belt. Used as a light recovery session post exercise. The research states this is good after strenuous plyometric sessions (Reilly and Ekblom, 2005). Many sports teams use swimming as a recovery session the day after matches.

Strength and Conditioning – if you are looking to reduce injuries then look no further that strength and conditioning: lift weights a few times a week. Lauersen et al. (2013) reported that strength training had a better protective effect to injuries when compared to stretching.



Lauersen, J, B., Bertelsen, D, M. and Andersen, L., B. (2013). The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and mata-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. Published Online First 22 May 2014. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092538

McHugh, M., P. and Cosgrave, C. H. (2010). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 20: 169-181.

McMillian, D, J., More, J, H., Hatler, B, S., and Taylor, D, C. (2006). Dynamic v Static-stretching warm up: the effect on power and agility performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 20 (3): 492-499.

Reilly, T. And Ekblom, B. (2005). The use of recovery methods post-exercise. Journal of Sports sciences. 23 (6) : 619-627.

Thacker, S. B., Gilchrist, J., Stroup, D. F., and Kimsey, Dexter, C. (2004). The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: a systematic review of the literature. 36 (3) : 371-378.

Feature Photo Credit: Athlete by Flickr user Tony Alter, adapted and used under a Creative Commons

Mark Beresford

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