Warming up and cooling down: are they really that important?

By Alex Longworth

Ok, who is guilty of skipping their warm ups and cool downs when they exercise?  I think a lot of people do this – in an effort to maximise their time actually working out.  We are all time poor and sometimes that extra 5-10 minutes can feel like a bridge too far… 

So, why should we spend time warming up and then cooling down? 

Interestingly, warm ups and cool downs serve different purposes.  Whilst both can contribute to reducing your risk of injury, they have other benefits.

Warming up is about preparing the body for load: getting the blood circulating, elevating the heart rate and body temperature and preparing you mentally for the work ahead.  By warming up, you will get more out of the actual time you spend working out.  You will be able to run that bit faster, lift heavier weights or do more exercise repetitions in your HIIT circuit.  So, in essence, you will get more from your workout than if you had just jumped into it cold. 

Cooling down is about helping the body recover (and prepare for the next workout):  stretching out the major muscles that have just been working hard, helping to shift any lactic acid and other metabolites that may have accumulated in your muscles during exercise, reducing any delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and, ultimately reducing your risk of injury and increasing your safe training frequency.

So, is one more important than the other?  I would argue, in terms of injury prevention, warm ups are more important.  If you force cold, stiff muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments to take on loads they’re not prepared for, you risk pulling, tearing or straining them.  Also, the more intense the exercise (i.e., heavy strength training, sprint intervals, HIIT), the more important the warm up as well as the cool down are.

Warm ups and cool downs don’t have to be onerous or time consuming – a minimum of just 5 minutes either side of your workout will make a difference.  

Try and incorporate the following:

Warm Ups: dynamic movements like jogging, sideways running, high knees, butt kicks plus some upper body and trunk mobility exercises – try and focus on the muscles that are about to work the hardest in your chosen workout

Cool downs: slower, sustained stretches for all the major muscle groups:  Quads; Hamstrings, Gluts and Calves + Triceps, Lats, Pectorals 

So, next time you are tempted to take off from a standing start on that tempo run, give your body the chance to warm up first and you will reap the benefits!

Alex Longworth

Physiotherapist, Program Director and Co-Founder, TRL FIT