Why warm up and cool down?

stretching, cool down, warm up, training, Kirsten Sweetland, Canada

Canadian triathlete Kirsten Sweetland cools down after training in her hometown of Whistler in British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

If you don’t warm up or cool down, you are definitely not alone.

A large majority of people don’t consider the warm up or cool down as necessary in their exercise regimes. But you should, and this article will give you four very good reasons.

The scenario:

You arrive at the venue, have a cup of coffee, quickly do a few stretches, run to the bathroom, and wait nervously for the start gun. Now the race has started, your breathing has become rapid, and you feel a little off, struggling to run efficiently. You may feel your groove is gone. Then, after five kilometres, things start to come together, and you find your rhythm and pace.

Sound familiar? For many people, including myself, this used to be the case. I’ve discovered, however, that through the simple process of warming up, this intermediate phase can be avoided, and you can get into top gear that much quicker.

This makes sense when generally you would like to perform well from the start of your activity, whether it’s high intensity training or trying to achieve a personal best in your race.

I recently had the chance to sit down and tap into the knowledge of my fix-me-up-please go-to guy, biokineticist Fayaadh Dhansay of Bio MechaniX in Cape Town.

He gave me the low-down on the importance of warming up and cooling down.

Braden Currie warms up prior to the start at the Kinloch OTU Sprint Triathlon Oceania Cup in Taupo, New Zealand. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Warming Up

In a nutshell, for the same reason you wouldn’t jump into your car on a cold morning, start the engine and set off at full throttle, you can’t cold-start your body.

Warming up is in essence taking the body from a state of rest to a state of activity. When the body realises it is about to become more active, the muscles demand more oxygen and nutrients, the way your car demands more petrol when accelerating.

This shift to activity and providing for the muscles, can take anywhere from five to 15 minutes. This translates into time lost during the race, and 15 minutes into most races is quite a setback.

If time lost during your race does not concern you too much, no problem… you are there to have fun, right?

You should, however, be worried about your increased risk of potential injury that comes into play when we do not take time for warming up. There are three things that warming up, or lack thereof, affect:

  • The cardiovascular system
  • The muscular system
  • The joints and joint mobility

The Cardiovascular System

The first risk of not warming up is the strain this causes to the cardio system, especially the heart by means of a lack of oxygen to the heart, also known as cardiac ischemia. The heart is, after all, a muscle and under activity it requires more oxygen, like all its other muscular counterparts! This can affect old and young, healthy and not-so-healthy individuals.

In the worst case scenario, this presents itself as a heart attack.

Reason 1 to warm up: Reduced strain to your cardiovascular system.

The Muscular System

Your muscles are made up of thousands of cells. These cells operate best at a certain temperature – just like an engine running at its optimum. Through warm up, you raise the temperature so that you can engage them at high intensity during race or training.

While you are inactive, the brain aims to conserve energy, so during general inactivity, only a small percentage of your muscles are working. When we commence activity, the brain sends a message to activate a larger percentage of the muscles. Unfortunately, this takes time and once again, if you haven’t warmed up, it translates to time lost during the race. This process of warming up is called muscle activation.

Reason 2 to warm up: Your muscles perform better from the very start of your activity, and you enjoy better performances.

Joint Mobility

When we are immobile for a period of time, the muscles go offline and the joints tighten up. That is why for maximum efficiency, we need to mobilise them dynamically. Now cut back to the sight of people standing stretching before a run or activity. That is static stretching and for a pre-race workout, not the way to start. Imagine stretching a cold fizzer. It snaps!

Warm fizzer? Nice and stretchy. A slow jog, bum kicks, knee highs, skipping and some short speed bursts are dynamic and will start the process of warming up the body.

Now the muscles are warmed up and more responsive.

Reason 3 to warm up: A reduced risk of injury!

To my surprise, Fayaadh explained that static stretching decreases maximal muscle power output by up to 20% for up to two hours. This is one good reason that static stretching is not on the list for pre-exercise but rather post in the cool down.

So now you have warmed up, gradually shifting your body from rest to activity by lowering your risk of cardiac and muscular injury, activated the muscles, and mobilised the joints. You have had a great training session or race and nailed the personal best time.

Your race is finished! Well done. But hold off the post-race party for another 15 minutes, it’s time to cool down.

Olympic rowers Paul and Bernhard Sieber show us how its done after a running session in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Cool Down

You guessed it; this is simply the reverse of your warm up, by safely taking the body from a state of activity to a state of rest.

This process or the effects of not cooling down are experienced the most! We have all had that moment, you see the finish line, the crowd is cheering, and you sprint with all you have to cross that line. You did it! Now as you stop, you feel some dizziness, perhaps nausea or maybe you get the full treatment and get tunnel vision – and blackout!

I have experienced this once before. I had just got into running and smashed out a 22km training run, at race pace, going non-stop. When I reached the end, I came to an abrupt stop. Within the first minute nausea and dizziness kicked in, another minute later and tunnel vision followed by a blackout. That was when I realised the importance of cooling down.

These undesirable symptoms are caused by venous pooling in the legs, in other words blood does not get back up to the heart and the head. Prevent this by having a slow jog or movement after your race, bringing speed and intensity down slowly along with your heart rate. For those that have run on a treadmill or attended a spin class, you don’t go from full speed to stop. If you do, as Fayaadh so eloquently puts it, “Nature will rectify the problem by switching off the lights and putting you flat on your back”.

Reason 1 to cool down: It returns you safely to a stable rest state.


Now comes the stretching or static stretching. The point is to return muscle to its original length before you started. It is also important to remember you are stretching the muscles, and not the joints! If you are stretching and feel it in a joint, change the stretch. You should be able to feel the difference between muscle stretch and joint. The other important consideration is stretching is subjective and depends on your own range of movement and flexibility pre- and post-exercise/race.

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Excessive stretching weakens the muscles, which results in flexible – but weak – muscles. The aim is to gain mobility, meaning flexibility with control, not just flexibility. Once again, it is subjective to individual mechanics.

Apply It And Benefit

Hopefully this overview of warming up and cooling down will make your training and racing that much more enjoyable and productive! The body is a complex machine and the knowledge of the science behind biokinetics is fascinating and helpful.

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About Michael Gombart

Michael Gombart, 27 years old, from Cape Town, South Africa turned his life around at the age of 25. He went from overweight bar fly, scared of exercise and weighing 94kg, to a 68kg international athlete in two years. Michael believes that reaching your dreams is possible through hard work and passion. He enjoys consistent results and podium finishes on the road, trail and duathlon disciplines. He strives to be a motivation to others that a healthy, active life is possible for all and that it’s never too late to change your ways and fight for your dream. Career-wise, Michael started Outpost Running (outpostrunning.co.za) in 2014, spurred on by the need to connect and interact with athletes and to bring the best gear to their doorsteps. Future aspirations: Podium at the 2015 Duathlon World Champs, Adelaide. Podium at the European Duathlon Champs 2016 & World Duathlon Champs 2016 Top results at the 2016 World Mountain Running Championships Sub 70 Minute half marathon

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