How to Warm-Up, Cool-Down, and Stretch for Running

An extra five minutes. Because you're worth it.

Warming up and cooling down might seem like a waste of 10 to 15 minutes of valuable time. But they can improve performance or recovery, and reduce your chances of suffering an injury, making it time incredibly well spent.

A few extra minutes can save you weeks or even months of being unable to run because of injury, so the rewards you reap for the tiny time investment are potentially huge.

The Warm-Up

Running is clearly healthy. But if you spend the majority of your time sitting (like most of us do), going from being totally stationary to full on running (okay jogging) can be a bit of a shock to the system.

A good time for an analogy. So, just like red-lining a cold car engine is asking for trouble, going from doing nothing to running is a sure fire recipe for injury. That’s where warming up comes in. And if it’s good enough for elite athletes, who warm for 45 minutes or more before competition, there must be something to it.

Why You Should Warm-up Before Running

Warming-up before a run has a manifold of benefits, it helps to:

  • Raise heart rate, breathing rate, metabolic rate, nerve conduction rate, and muscle temperature, preparing the body for exercise.12
  • Boost oxygen delivery to the muscles, helping to reduce the build of lactic acid and other metabolic by-products that are associated with muscle soreness and cramps, which occurs during exercise.34
  • Increase flexibility (greater range of motion of joints such as the hips, knees, and ankles).5
  • Boost the speed of muscular contractions, muscle force and power.67
  • Increase running economy.89
  • Improve performance.10
  • Reduce the risk of injury. However, the research isn’t definitive, with some studies showing benefit while others show none.1112 Think of it more as generally accepted wisdom.
  • Increase focus and mental alertness.13 This can help you to better judge your running pace and improve awareness of running form

How to Warm-Up

While any warm-up is better than none, you can (and should) go beyond a warm-up strategy that encompasses a bit of light jogging and a few occasional calf and hamstrings stretches. Here’s the basic breakdown of a warm-up.

Anatomy of a Warm-Up

A good warm-up should include three elements:

  1. Joint mobility exercises
  2. Pulse raising activity
  3. Dynamic stretches 

Sometimes warm-up activities will cover more than one of these elements but that’s okay – so long as you get all three elements into your warm-up one way or another, you’ll be fine.

Here’s a brief look at each element. 

1 Joint Mobility

Joints are where two bones meet and are lubricated with an oil-like substance called synovial fluid. Synovial fluid is produced on demand. By doing joint mobility exercises before you run, you ensure your joints are properly lubricated which will reduce wear and tear.

Joint wear and tear can lead to arthritis which could potentially end your running career prematurely so joint mobility exercises are very important.

Examples of joint mobility exercises:

  • Shallow squats
  • Ankle circles
  • Hurdle step-overs
  • Side bends
  • Waist twists
  • Shoulder shrugs
  • Arm circles

2 Pulse Raising Activity

Have you ever noticed how the first few minutes of a run are especially uncomfortable? It’s as though your legs are out of sync with your lungs.

That’s because it takes a few minutes for your cardiovascular system (heart, blood, blood vessels) to catch up with the oxygen demand of your running muscles. Pulse raising activity helps to avoid this.

As well as getting plenty of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, the pulse raising activity is also the part of the warm-up that actually gets you warm. 

How to: Simply start slowly and increase your pace over 3 – 5 minutes.

3 Dynamic Stretches

In the old days, runners – like most athletes – did static stretches before their training. Static stretches are held for 10 to 30 seconds in a stationary position hence their name.

Static stretches are good for developing your flexibility but as you have to sit or stand still, they also result in your heart rate dropping, your muscles getting cooler and, worst of all, reduce the contractility of your muscles. Yes – static stretching makes you temporarily weaker. So – not really ideally suited for warm-ups.141516

Dynamic stretches, in contrast, involve active movements that mimic the movements of running. These functional stretches raise your heart rate, increase body temperature, and actually promote muscle contractility and improve performance.17

Dynamic stretches include:

  • Leg swings
  • Squat to overhead reach
  • Lunges
  • Butt-kickers
  • Plus many of the mobility exercises described above.

How to: Three to five dynamic stretches performed for ten repetitions each will stretch virtually every muscle in your body in the time most people spend on their calves! 

How Long to Warm Up Before A Run?

Good question! And the answer is – it depends.

Shorter warm-up: If you are heading out for a light jog (e.g. easy run), are younger, injury free, you’ve been on the move a lot, or it’s an especially hot day – about 5 minutes

Longer warm-up: If it’s cold, you are older, carrying an injury, have been sedentary for a long time, or you are going to be running faster or harder (e.g. tempo run, HIIT) then you need a longer warm-up – about 10 – 15 minutes.

The Cool-Down

Once your workout is complete, it’s very tempting to grab a banana, down some water and head for the shower. However, going from running hard to doing nothing is almost as bad as going from doing nothing to running hard.

The Benefits of Cool-Downs

It’s important to transition gradually from activity to rest to help avoid unwanted muscle and joint soreness, and promote a speedy post-workout recovery

These are just some of the benefits of an active cool-down after your run.

  • Removes lactic acid and other metabolic by-products from the blood and muscle.1819
  • Facilitates recovery of the cardiovascular and respiratory system to resting levels after exercise.2021
  • May reduce the risk of experiencing post-exercise symptoms such as lightheadedness, fainting, tunnel vision, and blurred vision by increasing blood flow to the heart and brain, and decreasing blood pooling in the legs.2223
  • May reduce the likelihood of delated onset muscle soreness (DOMs). However, the research is mixed with several studies showing no effect on reducing muscle soreness.242526

How to Cool-Down After Running

Don’t skip the cool-downs – they’re simple, pleasant, and bring you back into balance.

Anatomy of a Cool-Down

Cool-downs, also known as warm downs, consist of two elements:

  1. Pulse lowerer
  2. Static stretches

A quick look at each cool-down element.

1 Pulse Lowerer

Rather than just sprint for home and then come to a dead stop, start slowing down about 5 – 10 minutes before the end of your run.

How to: Go from a run to a slow jog, followed by a walk so that, when you finish, your breathing rate is more or less back to normal.

This ensures your muscles are flooded with freshly oxygenated blood and not drowning in the by-products of a hard workout – such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Clearing these substances out of your system means you should suffer less post-exercise muscle soreness. 

2 Static Stretches

Once your breathing rate is back to normal, it’s time to stretch out your hard-worked muscles to prevent post-exercise muscle tightness and promote flexibility. While static stretches were not really appropriate for warm-ups, they are ideally suited for cool-downs when the muscles are warm and supple.

How to: Gently stretch each of your major muscles paying special attention to any that feel unusually tight. Start at the bottom of your body with your calves and work upward to ensure you get them all.

Hold your stretches for ten seconds or so to maintain your current flexibility or 30 seconds or more to improve it.

Ease into your stretches and never ever bounce or force the stretched position as this may lead to injury. Stretching should not hurt so if it does, back off and ease in again. 

A sample routine of cool-down stretches:

  • Calf stretch
  • Hamstring stretch
  • Thigh (quad) stretch
  • Hip flexor stretch
  • Glute stretch (Figure-4 Stretch)
  • Iliotibial band stretch
  • Lower back stretch (Child’s Pose)

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