Let’s go and run …….
Many runners put on their trainers, go out the front door and run. Then coming back, it is an effort to the finish and stop – great a good time. Go indoors have a drink and then that well deserved snack and collapse on the sofa.
Sounds familiar? So, what’s wrong with the scenario? Running is a demanding activity and it’s important to prepare for each run, physically and mentally, rather than launching straight in. This is what a ‘warm-up’ is all about. It gives your heart and lungs — as well as the muscles and joints — a chance to get ready for the running to come. Then you have finished your run and the body is working hard you want to bring it back to a resting state gradually and in control. So, the purpose of the ‘cool-down’ is to gradually return the body to a resting state. Then, once you’ve finished your run, you need to stretch out the muscles, to counteract the repetitive shortening actions involved in running.
These three procedures are not just an optional add-on to running, they are essential in performing and minimising injury and after exercise soreness. Make sure that when you run, you always warm-up, cool-down and stretch – it need not be a great performance and the tips below outline a simple easy and short warm up, cool down and stretch.
The reasons to warm-up are to primarily to raise the body temperature and heart rate so the production of energy works better. In addition, muscles are less rigid liable to tear when they are warmer. The warm-up period also activates brain to body communication, so that your running is more coordinated and energy-efficient. This links in with getting mentally primed for activity, too — the few minutes you spend warming-up give you a chance to get prepared for the run ahead. Also, if you are running with friends then a great chance to catch up and have a chat before the effort starts!
The first stage of the warm-up is to get your joints moving. Gently take each of the major joints (the neck, shoulders, spine, hips knees and ankles) through its full range of motion — for example, roll the shoulders all the way around, bend and extend the knees fully, circle the ankles. This helps to lubricate the joint surfaces so that movement is more comfortable, smooth and safe. Keep everything very gentle and easy.
Next, to raise body temperature and heart rate, you need to perform some gentle aerobic activity for about five minutes. This could be a mix of brisk walking, marching, skipping, knee lifts, side stepping, gentle jogging. Finally, start your run at a slow jog, and gradually work up to your desired pace.
The cool-down after a run
Once you’ve completed your run, slow down to a comfortable jog for a couple of minutes and then break into a walk. This gradual deceleration gives your body a chance to redirect blood from the working muscles. It also helps to clear waste from the muscles which reduces stiffness following day. You can stop completely when your breathing and heart rate are well on their way back to normal — usually after 2 to 5 minutes.
The running stretch
It’s important to stretch to maintain your flexibility and suppleness, as running will make certain muscles shorter and tighter increasing the likelihood of you sustaining an injury. Hold each of the five stretches below for 20 to 30 seconds and aim to repeat each one twice, finishing with the lower back exercise. Breathe normally as you stretch and if you feel the muscle you are working ‘give’ a little, take the stretch a little further. It should be a sensation of lengthening, rather than of pain.
- Hamstrings (back of the thigh)
Stand face-on to a support between knee and mid-thigh height. Extend one leg and place it on the support, with the foot relaxed. Your supporting leg should be perpendicular to the floor. Now hinge forward from the hips (don’t round the back), keeping the pelvis level and the knee of the extended leg straight. Feel the stretch along the back of the supported thigh. Now slightly bend the knee and repeat the stretch. Swap sides.
- Quadriceps (front of the thigh)
Stand tall with feet parallel and then lift your right heel, taking your right hand behind you to grab the foot. Bring the pelvis in to a neutral position (tuck the tailbone under) and gently press the foot into your hand, keeping the knee pointing downwards. It doesn’t matter if your stretching thigh is in front of the supporting one, as long as you feel a stretch. Swap sides.
- Hip flexors (front of the hip)
From a lunge position, with the left foot forward, take your right knee to the floor with the lower leg extended behind it (the knee well behind the hip) and the toes facing down. Tighten the tummy muscles and extend forwards from the hips, until your left knee is at 90 degrees. You should feel a stretch along the front of the hip joint and thigh. Swap sides.
- Calves (back of the lower leg)
Stand facing a support, feet a stride length apart with back leg straight and front leg bent. Press the back heel into the floor so that you experience a stretch in the middle of the calf muscle. Hold. Now bring the back leg in a little, bend the knee and flex the hips, so that the stretch moves down to the lower part of the calf and Achilles tendon. Swap sides.
- Hips and glutes (bum and outside of thighs)
Sit against a wall with legs outstretched. Cross your right foot over your left thigh and put the foot flat on the floor. Now take your left arm around the right knee and gently pull it around towards the shoulder (rather than hugging directly to chest), sitting up tall. Swap sides.
- Cat stretch (to stretch out the lower back)
Kneel on all fours with hands below shoulders and knees below hips. Take a breath and as you exhale, carefully round your back like an angry cat, drawing up the abdominals and allowing the head to drop. Take a breath and then as you exhale, pass back through the neutral position into an arch, lengthening from crown to tailbone like a cat stretching. Round and arch slowly three times.