The simple science of warming up and cooling down properly is essential info for all runners. – BY ERNEST HOBBS
As discussed in the January edition, there is a popular perception that stretching before running improves performance and reduces the risk of injury. However, research has shown no conclusive link to these claims, some even pointing to detrimental consequences as a result of stretching. However, while traditional stretching may not be the best idea before a physical activity, a thorough warm-up may be essential.
The principle of a warm-up is exactly that: A slow but progressive increase in exercise intensity to prepare the body for exercise. Ideally, this should consist of three small phases, namely Stretch, Activate and Mobilise, easily remembered as SAM.
1. Stretching should be done in a slow, dynamic (moving) manner rather than a static (stationary) manner. Slow is the key, as ballistic (explosive) movements could increase risk of injury and lead to soreness. Structures inside the muscle are responsible for a stretch-reflex, contracting the muscle when it stretches too far. Slowly swinging the limbs to the comfortable limit of range will trigger the inner structures of the muscle to relax, as there is no risk of the muscles tearing.
Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) is another beneficial stretching technique, using the contraction of one muscle or muscle group, for example the hamstrings, to stretch the opposite muscle or group – in this case, the quads. Again, this method is dynamic, holding a stretch for only a second, and in so doing the inner structures again relax and safely allow the muscle to stretch to its comfortable limit.
2. Activating involves contraction of the muscles, thus allowing them to lengthen during the stretch and shorten during contraction. This mimics the action of the muscle during exercise, raises the local temperature, and increases blood flow, effectively supplying the muscles with nutrients. A warm muscle is more pliable and becomes more effective in its function, which may improve performance and reduce risk of injury.
3. Mobilising is to joints what stretching is to muscles. By taking the joints through increasing ranges of motion at increasing intensities, the tendons and ligaments around the joint are lightly stressed. Although the tendons and ligaments have poor blood supply, the movement alerts them to activity and warms them in a manner similar to repeatedly bending plastic.
Engaging Reverse Gear
Just as a warm-up is essential to prepare for exercise, so too a cool-down is essential to prepare for rest, by reducing the intensity of activity gradually and leading the body to a state of rest. It maintains an increased level of blood flow to remove waste by-products from the muscles, while reducing the production of waste by-products.
Simply put, the cool-down is performed in the reverse order of the warm-up, but here static (stationary) stretching may be of benefit during the cool-down. While the muscles are warm, they stretch more easily, lengthening the muscles to improve flexibility. In addition, static stretching while warm relaxes the muscle, reducing the risk of cramp following exercise.