Your warm-up and stretching should be seen as two separate entities, writes Mark Buckingham
Warm-up is the preparation of your body for the more serious and strenuous activity that you have planned. Stretching is more focused on specific areas that are tight and require loosening either for the planned activity or for improved flexibility. It is not a requirement of a warm-up to stretch anything, but it may be useful for you if there is something that is specifically tight.
Cool-down is the calming of your body from the run, slowly settling the heart rate and keeping the blood flowing easily to help flush out the chemical by-products of exercise from the muscles. This is the perfect time to perform any stretching on areas that you know from experience are habitually tight.
There is little evidence that hard stretching of cold muscles and joints has any positive effect on injury-prevention or performance enhancement. Where the evidence lies is that a general easing into running is the best preparation followed by some specific stretches relevant to you.
There is evidence, however, to say that if you have an area that you know to be tight that some stretching of that muscle or joint will be beneficial once you have warmed-up.
To explain this further: if you are going out for an easy run, then a two-minute brisk walk or slow jog which then develops into a run over another two minutes is as good a warm-up as any. If you know, for example, that your calf muscles are particularly tight, then stretch them after the first few minutes of the run, while they are warm. There is no evidence to say that stretching a normal length muscle that is not tight has any injury-prevention or warm-up benefits.
However, if you are looking to do a hard session, your preparation should be different. You should look to prepare your body for what you are about to inflict upon it! Following the same easy jog to run for four minutes to get the heart rate up and bring blood and warmth to the muscles is an appropriate start. Then do some easy stretching into the specific movements that you will use in the session proper.
So you need four minutes’ worth of jog, becoming increasingly fast-paced, then a couple of minutes spent stretching into drills – lunges, high knees, heel flicks, side skips, bounding skips. The speed and energetic nature of the moves should increase to the point where you are mimicking the session pace. If you know that your hamstrings or calf muscles are habitually tight then at this point, there is benefit in stretching them. Do not force it or hold for more than 30 seconds.
It’s simply a case of knowing your body and knowing what is usually tighter because it is just your make-up or because you sit at a desk all day when your hip flexors and hamstrings will have been kept in a short position.
The warm-up should take a good 15-20 minutes minimum and you should start off wearing plenty of clothes, shedding the outer layers as you start to gently sweat.
You should not push so hard that you are properly out of breath, but a decent opening of the lungs and a build-up of heat and sweat is essential.
Below are a few of the stretches that are most common for the lower limbs. Stretching technique for warm-up should not be painful. There should be tension and pull, but not sharp pain. Ease into the stretch for at least 30 seconds to allow the initial tension in the muscle to reduce and the muscle fibres to relax and lengthen. This is for a warm-up stretch scenario and you need only to do one 30-second stretch per muscle.
There are more recognised physiological and injury prevention benefits to be had from the cool-down than the warm-up. It is therefore ironic that it is often forgotten.
At the end of an easy long run a gradual slowing down to a jog for five minutes allows the heart rate to settle as well as helping to flush the by-products of the exercise out of the system. Any areas which have been working in a relatively restricted and repeated range for a period would then benefit from an easy stretch as described in the warm-up phase.
This helps to restore the muscle fibres to normal length and to lengthen the collagen fibres, which have been stressed and will want to shorten if allowed to.
If you simply collapse to the ground after the last rep of a session and stay there for 10 minutes or so before crawling to the changing room you will be storing up issues. The muscles and tendons in particular have been stressed to their limits and this means there will have been micro-trauma to the collagen fibres and small tears within the fabric of the muscle and tendon.
The muscle fibres stay short and tight if the muscle is not stretched to a normal length. This allows the microscopic scar tissue to set short and tight and this leads to a gradually tighter and tighter muscle which has less elastic range. This type of muscle is far more likely to tear properly and will only be able to perform over a shorter range, which means you will be slower.
Once the painful fatigue of that last rep has passed, get yourself up and walk for a few minutes, then break into an easy jog and repeat slowly and gently some of the drill type motions that were employed in the warm-up. It does not have to be fast or violent – five minutes of easy work will pay huge dividends later on.
It is noticeable at international competitions, such as the World Cross Country, teams like Ethiopia and Kenya generally work together in the warm-up and cool-down. Regardless of the weather, they wear full tracksuits and the team run together. They start off at the slowest of jogs (you could walk quicker) and the rhythm progressively builds up. Once they have completed several laps they break into a series of almost choreographed moves involving such things as high knees, heel flicks and hip rolls to mention but a few. The cool-down is the same – a long and very slow team effort.
The cool-down period after an easy run is the time to do your hard, length-changing stretches. You are warm and it is a long time until the next run, so there is recovery. If you know your hamstrings, for example, are tight and you want to improve their length, then you need to stretch them for at least two minutes and four times a day. If you do less than this then the progress will be limited. The best time for at least one of these tough stretches is after a run. The worst time is just before a session.
To improve the effectiveness of a stretch you can use the “hold relax” technique. Put the muscle on stretch (as above) and hold for 40 seconds. Then tighten the muscle –contracting it – hold for five seconds, relax the contraction, then push a bit further into the stretch. You will find that you can go a bit more and hold for 30 seconds then repeat the contraction for five seconds once more before repeating the relax and further stretch. Repeat this cycle for around two minutes.
» Witty, Pask and Buckingham Physiotherapists have 16 years of working with the UK’s elite runners at Olympic Games, world and European championships for UK Athletics, as well as all standards of runners from around the country. The practice provides the complete service for assessment and treatment of runners, from prevention to rehabilitation. Tel: 01604- 601641 or go to wpbphysio.co.uk