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The Right Way to Warm Up and Cool Down

By Molly Hurford | July 17, 2019 | Rally Health

It’s pretty much always a good idea to warm up before a workout and cool down after you’re done, and here’s why. A good warmup revs your system so that you’re ready to tackle a workout, whether you’re planning hill sprints on the bike or a bootcamp class at the gym. “A warmup is quite literal,” says Michael J. Ross, MD, a sports medicine physician and the author of Maximum Performance for Cyclists. “It’s to get you warm — your muscles work better at a higher temperature than they do at rest. An active warmup involves a slow ramp-up of movements to get you into your workout.”

Meanwhile, a cooldown helps you recover after you’re done with the hard stuff, slowing your breathing and dropping your heart rate. You shouldn’t skip it: Stopping too fast after working out can make you feel sick. Stretching muscles during a cooldown may also help you improve flexibility and range of motion, and may decrease your risk of injury and the chance you’ll experience muscle soreness the next day

The riders on the Rally UHC Cycling team have perfected their warmup and cooldown strategies. Here, they share their do’s and don’ts for perfecting your pre- and post-workout rituals. 

For Your Warmup

Do: Start with five to 10 minutes at an easy pace

Warming up slowly helps minimize stress on the heart. As one of the most senior members of the Rally Cycling women’s squad, 33-year-old Erica Allar has learned the value of this, and of easing your muscles into a workout. For Allar, a few minutes of very easy spinning as her heart rate slowly rises is all it takes to get into gear. The Mayo Clinic suggests using the “talk test” for your warmup: go at a pace that allows you to chat fairly easily with a friend. A good warm-up should last five to 10 minutes. “Just start slow and easy, and ease into your workout,” says Ross. “And good news: You can count those warmup minutes as part of your overall workout time.”

Don’t: Stretch cold muscles

“Absolutely do not stretch before you warm up,” cautions Ross. Research has shown that static stretching before a workout — like you may have done in gym class as a kid — does not prevent injury; in fact, it may actually increase your risk of hurting yourself. This is because when your muscles are still cool, they’re not as flexible, so you risk straining them when doing static stretches like forward folds. While static stretches are out, dynamic stretching — movement-based exercises that lengthen muscles — can be beneficial, especially for activities involving explosive movements, like power-lifting in a bootcamp class or cutting and sprinting in a pickup soccer game. For trail runners, well-known coach David Roche is a fan of a simple set of lunges, done forward, backwards, and to the side.  

Do: Once you’re warm, build in a few short sprints

If you’re planning a full body workout with lots of lateral or dynamic movement —  anything incorporating sprints or power moves — consider working some short bursts into your warmup to prep. Ryan Anderson, a Canadian cyclist who has spent much of his career racing in the pro ranks in Europe, says that a few short sprints help to get him ready for harder moments later in his workouts. Toward the end of your warmup, after you’ve limbered up a bit, complete a few intense, five-second exercises. That could mean running or cycling for three short sprints, or doing a few rapid air squats to boost your heart rate and prime fast-twitch muscles.

Don’t: Do exactly what your friend is doing

A running warmup may take five minutes for your friend to feel fantastic, but you may need the full 10 to start to feel loose and limber. It depends on your current level of fitness, plus how you’re feeling that specific day. “Warmups are different for everyone, so you have to take some time to figure out what makes you feel the best,” says Ross. Experiment with what feels good to you, and create your own personalized routine. 

For Your Cooldown

Don’t: Skip it 

It’s tempting to stop as soon as you hit your time or mileage goal, but take five minutes or so to slow down first. “Your muscles act as pumps, to keep the blood flowing,” says Ross. “If you completely stop, you lose that, and that’s why people get dizzy or even pass out at the end of the workout.” 

Do: Slow down gradually

Reprise your warmup with a few minutes of easy activity at the end of your workout. For a runner, that might mean five minutes of walking; at the gym after a CrossFit class, you might do a light jog or a few minutes on a spin bike, allowing your breathing to slow and normalize, your blood pressure and heart rate to return to resting levels. The key is to take it easy. Rally Cycling’s Vermonter Kyle Murphy has to ride up a hill to get back to his house after a workout —  so he shifts to an easy gear, to give himself a break. “I don’t try to race my way up,” he says. 

Don’t: Skimp on post-workout hydration

A lot of people finish a workout and head right back to real life, skipping things like a post-workout hydration in favor of getting back to the office. After exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends that you drink roughly two to three cups of water for every pound of weight you lost during your workout. To figure out how much water you need, weigh yourself before and after each workout. (Do what the Rally UHC racers do and always have a full water bottle on hand to remind you to keep sipping.)

Do: Stretch (or Roll) It Out 

“This is the best time to do that mobility work, when you’re still warm,” says Ross. Post-ride, try a few light stretches, focusing on muscle groups fatigued during your workout. Or pick up a foam roller. Foam rolling may reduce delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, after intense exercise, according to a systematic review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Murphy likes to roll out his quads and hamstrings to release tension after a tough day on the bike. Consider the few minutes you spend stretching and rolling as part of your workout, and you’ll be much more likely to get it done — and help your body stay happy and healthy. 

Molly Hurford
Rally Health