People talk a lot about warming up and cooling down before sports and exercise and yet most people still don't do nearly enough of either. No matter what type of exercise you are partaking in, these are both crucial steps to staying injury free and avoiding problems; this is especially true when doing any cardiovascular activity.
When you first wake up in the morning your muscles are about 10 percent shorter than normal from tightness that occurs during sleep. After you start exercising they get about 10 percent longer than normal. That is a pretty big swing. A longer muscle is less like to become injured compared to a tight muscle because it can more easily exert more force.
On the flip side cooling down is crucial in regards to blood flow and your heart. Almost all exercise related heart attacks occur right after serious exertion. When you are going strong or even full tilt blood is rushing around your body. But when you suddenly stop all the blood rush can quickly stop as well sending less blood to the heart and the brain. Obviously this can cause a problem which is why you see people keel over right after finishing a race instead of during it.
Continual studies have shown that static stretching, holding a pose for a long period of time, is not very effective as a warm-up. This is mainly because it is difficult to lengthen a cold muscle. Instead a proper warm up should involve dynamic stretches which is increasing the range of motion of movements that assist with stretching.
For someone who is going to be running or doing similar cardio you might start doing some slow walking to get the blood going and then engage in some slow motion running movements to mimic what your body will do as you stretch out. You can include taking lunging steps, side to side lunges, deep bend hops, and a whole litany of motions for about 5 minutes. These are used to slowly start and stretch out the muscles warmed up from walking.
From there you would want to jog slowly for another 5 minutes or so to keep the warm-up going and get those muscles to their fully elongated size. If you were cycling you would want to go on a level plane at a sedate pace for the same period to warm-up.
The cool down process is almost in reverse of the warm-up. You want to save enough gas in the tank to go from a full run to a slower jog for a few minutes to gradually slow the heart rate down. Then the jogging slows and turns into a fast walk before it peters out to a slow walk as you end things. This way there is no sudden blood stoppage to the brain or heart which can cause a number of bad reactions in both younger and older people alike.
After you have cooled down that way it is time for static stretching. With the muscles fully warm and at their loosest (10% longer than normal) you want to take advantage of that and try to stretch them out more. This extra stretching is more beneficial now to lengthen the muscle further and also reduce damage and help with the recovery process. The stretching process helps remove lactic acid and other waste products in the muscle which reduces soreness.
The warm-up is also an excellent time to mentally focus on the task ahead. If you are a runner you might review your route, pace, and distance goals. Even if you are doing cardio at the gym you might consider your goals and help get your mind focused while you prepare your body. Workouts are considerably better when your mind and body is on the same page.
Then during the cool down you have time to reflect on how you did, consider goals for the next workout, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.
John Henderson is a writer on health and exercise subjects. Please follow John Henderson at the Nutribomb.com blog or at our google plus page.