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Pre-Race Warm Ups and Post-Race Cool Downs

Pre-Race Warm Ups and Post-Race Cool Downs: why they are important

Doing a quick warm-up before a race

If I am running an ultra marathon I usually do not warm up since somewhere between mile one and the finish I should be able to warm up.  However, warming up is part of my race day routine when I am racing to set a PR or racing for a fast finishing time.  Starting at a fast pace from the starting gun without warming up is a shock to my body and it seems to take a longer time to settle into my racing pace.  To avoid this shock I do a warm up run before my race to get my body ready for the stress it is about to endure.

Fit Person vs Sedentary Person

Here is a very unscientific example that I like to believe is true.  If a fit person and a sedentary person both climb a long flight of steps at the same time and at the same pace the fit person will be breathing harder.  Sounds weird?  Well, here is the unscientific reasoning.  A sedentary person’s body is not used to doing long endurance exercise and does not know what is happening to it while walking up the steps.  So the sedentary person’s body just ignores the stress sent through it system because it should go away soon since it never feels this sensation for long anyways.

For the fit person’s body the stress of walking up the steps is sensed in the system as: “Oh Shit, here we go again.  This could last for hours so we better ramp things up and fast.”  In other words, the fit person’s body has been trained so that when there is an increase in activity it starts getting ready for the long haul.  The fit person actually will get a bit winded going up the step because their body is actually working harder to get ready for the long endurance activity soon to come.

Like I said, I have no scientific proof and I do not even remember where I heard this from, but it makes me feel better when I get winded walking up a few flights of steps.  So, what does this have to do with warming up?

Warm Ups – Muscles and Blood Flow

With the “theory” that I just laid out before you, if you start a race cold your body will go into hyper overdrive right out of the gates and you will actually have to recover before you get into your race day pace.  However, if you do a warm up to get you body pumping you will be able to get over the hurdle of your body going into overdrive and be race-ready at the starting line.

The scientific part of warming-up goes like this.  When you perform your warm up routine your muscle temperature increases.  Warm muscles contract more forcefully and relax more quickly and their range of motion increases.  Warm muscles will also enhance speed and strength which results in a reduction of overstretching and injury.

As the body warms up your blood temperature also increases.  As the blood warms the amount of oxygen it can hold is reduced resulting in more oxygen going to the muscles.  This higher volume of oxygen going to the muscles enhances endurance and performance.

Warm Ups – Hormone Production and Metabolism

During a warm-up your body’s hormone production increases, and they are the hormones responsible for regulating energy production.  They in turn make more carbohydrates and fatty acids available for energy production.

While the hormones are increasing your body’s metabolism also improves.  Metabolism is the body’s ability to process energy.  For every one-degree rise in body temperature your metabolism within a muscle cell increases approximately 13 percent*.  This results in an improved ability for the exchange of oxygen from the blood to the muscles.

Cool Down – Lactic Acid and Blood Flow

Cooling down after an intense workout is just as important as warming up.  After an intense workout your body has a buildup of lactic acid.  Cooling down helps dissipate the lactic acid. Cooling down consists of performing a mild exercise which helps speed the removal of lactic acid from your body’s blood and muscles.  For more information on how to cool down see my article: Active Recovery for Runners.

Cooling down by briskly walking after a marathon

During exercise your blood vessels become wide open to provide the oxygen and nutrients your muscles need.  While performing your cool down your blood flow starts to return to normal.  If after your intense workout you suddenly come to a quick stop (without doing a cool down) your blood will start to accumulate in the wide open blood vessels, and especially the wide open blood vessel in your legs.  This can result in not enough blood getting to your heart which will make your heart beat faster.  This may also make you feel dizzy and/or light headed, and it is possible that you can even pass out.

What Works for Me

Again, I am not preaching that you must warm-up and cool down, and that this is the ONLY way you should train and race.  What I am sharing is what works for me when I am racing and training, and I want to pass my knowledge from experience along to you.

If you have been to a race and have seen other runners warming up and you have thought to yourself, “They must be crazy for running before a race” and “Don’t you think you’re going to run enough during the race?” And then saying to yourself after the race when you see them cooling down, “Didn’t they get enough exercise during the race?” I hope that you may decide that I have given you enough information to be curious about the benefits of warming-up and cooling down to consider researching the value of including it in your routine.

Post cool-down refreshments!

* Cycling Heath and Physiology, Ed Burke PH.D.

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