How to start out in running, part 2

A guide to warming up, stretching and cooling down for your running training

You may want to get outside and start running straight away but there are some essential warm-up exercises and stretches you need to do beforehand to help you avoid getting injured. An activity such as running requires warm-up preparation as this gives your body the chance to prepare itself for the more intensive run to come. Here's our guide to warming up before a run, stretching, and cooling down after a run.

Running may only consist of repeatedly placing one foot in front of the other, but it's a demanding activity, so it is essential that you  prepare for every run, both mentally and physically, rather than diving straight in. This is what 'warming up' is all about. A warm up will give your heart and lungs - plus your muscles and joints - the opportunity to get ready for the activity to follow. Equally, once your body has been firing on all cylinders during your run, it's not a good idea to stop suddenly and throw yourself back on to the couch. The idea of the 'cool down' is to slowly return your body to a resting state. Then, when you have completed your run, you will need to stretch out your muscles, to counteract the repetitive shortening actions that occur when running.

These three procedures are not an optional add-on to running - they are necessary in getting the most out of your running experience and lessening the risk of pain or injury. So, every time you schedule a run, make sure you have enough time to warm up, cool down and stretch as well.

The running warm up
The two main aims of a warm up are to raise your heart rate and your body's temperature. All the amazing chemical reactions that occur in your body to release energy for activity have to take place when your cells are at a certain temperature, which is higher than when you are testing. Your muscles will be more pliant and less likely to tear when they are warmer, too. Warming up activates the neuromuscular pathways (the brain-to-body communication lines) as well, so that your running afterwards will be more energy-efficient and coordinated. This ties in with becoming mentally prepared for activity, too - the few minutes you spend warming up will provide you the opportunity to get psychologically prepared for the challenging run to come.

The first stage of your warm up should be to get your joints moving. Gently move each of your major joints (neck, spine, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles) through its complete range of motion - for example, roll your shoulders  through 360 degrees, bend and extend your knees fully, and move your feet in circles to exercise your ankles. These exercises will help to lubricate the joint surfaces so that subsequent movement is more smooth, comfortable and safe. Be sure to avoid swinging or yanking your limbs, however - try to keep everything very easy and gentle.

Next, to raise your heart rate and body temperature, you will need to perform some gentle aerobic activity for around five minutes. This can be a mixture of quick walking, marching on the spot, knee lifts, side stepping, climbing stairs and easy jogging. Note if it's wet and cold outside, it is better to do your warm-up indoors. When you have finished, begin your run at a very slow pace, and slowly work up to your desired speed.

The cool down after a run
When you've finished your run, slow down to a comfortable jog for two or three minutes and then slow down again into a walk. A gradual reduction in speed will give your body a chance to redirect blood from the working muscles, so that you don't feel nauseous or giddy once you've stopped moving. The cool down will also help to clear waste (the by-products of your metabolism) from the muscles, thereby speeding up the muscles' recovery and lessening the chances of you aching or feeling stiff the next day. You can stop walking when your heart rate and breathing are well on their way back to normal - usually after performing cool down exercises for two to five minutes.

The running stretch
After your cool down, it will be time to stretch. It is recommended you do this to maintain your suppleness and flexibility, because running makes particular muscles tighter and shorter over time, hindering your performance and increasing the chances of you becoming injured. Alternatively, you can have a quick shower first and put some comfortable clothing on - but if you do this, make sure you don't delay your stretching session for more than about 20 minutes, or your body temperature will have dropped too much. For each of the stretches below, hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds and aim to repeat each one twice, finishing with the cat stretch. Breathe as normally as you can while you perform each stretch, and if you feel the muscle you are stretching 'give' a bit, take your stretch a bit further. You should have a sensation of lengthening, rather than pain.

Hamstrings (backs of the thighs)
Stand facing a support between knee and mid-thigh height. Extend your left leg, place it on the support, and relax your foot. Your right leg needs to be perpendicular to the floor. Hinge forward from your hips, keeping your back straight, your pelvis level and the knee of your left leg straight. Feel the stretch along the back of your left thigh. Now bend your left knee slightly and repeat the stretch. Then swap sides.

Quadriceps (fronts of the thighs)
Stand up straight with your feet placed parallel to each other and then lift your left heel, moving your left hand behind you to grab your foot. Move your pelvis into a neutral position (tuck your tailbone under) and gently press your foot into your hand, making sure your knee is pointing downwards. It doesn't matter if the thigh being stretched is in front of the supporting thigh, as long as you experience a stretch. Swap sides.

Hip flexors (front of the hips)
Starting from a lunge position, with the right foot forward, lower your left knee to the floor with your lower leg extended behind it (your knee should be well behind your hip) and your toes facing down. Tighten your tummy muscles and extend forwards from the hips, until your right knee is at 90 degrees. You will feel a stretch along the front of your hip joint and thigh. Swap sides.

Calves (backs of the lower legs)

Stand and face a support, with your feet a stride length apart, your back leg straight and your front leg bent. Push the back of your heel into the floor so that you feel a stretch in the middle of your calf muscle. Hold this position for a few seconds. Now move your back leg in a bit, bend your knee and flex your hips, so that the stretch goes down to the lower part of your calf and Achilles tendon. Swap sides.

Hips and glutes (bum and outside of your thighs)
Sit up against a wall with your legs outstretched. Cross your left foot over your right thigh and place the foot flat on the floor. Wrap your right arm around your left knee and carefully pull it around towards your shoulder - rather than hugging it directly to your chest - while sitting up straight. Swap sides.

Cat stretch (for stretching out the lower back)
Kneel down on all fours with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Inhale, and then as you breathe out, round your back slowly like an angry cat, drawing up your abdominal muscles and allowing your head to drop down. Inhale again, and then as you breathe out, pass back through your starting position and into an arch, lengthening from your crown to tailbone in a similar way to a cat stretching. Repeat the rounding and arching action slowly three times.

Now you have the inspiration and the knowledge, 'How to start out in running, part 3' will show you how to put the plan into action. You will be up and running in no time!


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