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What Happened to Warm Up – Cool Down?

The gun goes off, who is ready?

My casual return to the world of cross country happened a hair over four years ago when my Grandson Mason, began running. Now, in the middle of my fifth season (Granddaughter McKenzie, now running and Mason running collegiately), I am wondering what happened to some very simple processes we used in the good old days: specifically… warming up and cooling down.

Maybe I’m old fashioned (HA! Proudly old fashioned), but what I see in so many cross country programs is this loosely assembled idea of getting prepared to race. Before going any further, there ARE teams doing it well, and miraculously they seem to be the more successful programs. Unfortunately, for most, we have lost some of the discipline it takes for a distance runner to get ready to race. Too many are embracing the quickie warm-up: a little jog and some cutsie drills.

In this world of instant everything, unfortunately (or fortunately), the human body takes time to ready itself for the stress of the 5K or 10K race (or any other one for that matter). Whether it’s the impatience of youth, a lackadaisical attitude among coaches, or simply ignorance; the results of an improper warm-up are poorer performance, injuries, and basically a non-enjoyable experience. 

So, let’s talk warm-up. With a few adaptations to exact exercises found to be good or bad, according to what’s the latest in running’s constantly changing landscape, here is a warm-up for a 5K/10K person before racing. I used it in high school and college, used it with great success in twenty years of coaching, and would use it today. Duration: 40-60 minutes.

Step One: easy running. The idea here is to get the heart and the rest of the system ready. I like athletes to get up and get moving. Walk a bit (maybe 5-7 minutes) and then break into an easy jog. For a 5K cross country person, I’m thinking a couple of miles is good. We should feel warm at the conclusion. Get the body engaged, get the heart pumping. By the way, jog with your team, preferably on the course (in cross country).

Step Two: Light ground stretching. I’m not sure when these cutsie drills everyone does became a substitute for actually stretching, but in way too many cases, it has. There’s a place for cutsie drills, but not yet. Slow stretches, working on every major muscle group loosened. This can also be done as a team. AND steps one and two are done in your warm-up gear.

Step Three: Strides. Strides, or as I like to call them, Build Ups, are 80-100m beginning very slow and maxing at just below full speed 80-90% through. They should be a gradual build up. My tenth grade coach Al Pingel, used to tell us that every step should feel every-so-slightly faster than the previous. 2-4 of these let’s you know how loose you are. I generally ditch my warm-up bottoms for strides, BUT might leave tights on, especially if it’s very cold.

Step Four: Drills. Now we can do those fancy drills. The drills give a more dynamic stretch AND give you feedback as to which body parts might need more attention. WAY too many athletes just cruise through the drills without focus, often negating the goal of the drill. Coach Mike Smith, of the defending NCAA cross country champions at Northern Arizona, likes his guys to focus as if they were doing each drill for the first time and seeking to do it perfectly. After drills, it’s off with the remaining warm-ups (I’m down to my uniform with a T Shirt over my singlet), and on with my racing shoes.

Step Five. Final Strides. A few more strides to insure that we’re feeling loose, checking for spots that might need some last minute attention, and we are prepped and ready. Most often, we can get these strides in at the starting line as run outs. Then stay loose….

It’s race time!

Once completed the race leaves us yet another task, cooling down. Muscles get taxed heavily in a race, and they need some “flushing.” This is where a nice, easy twenty minutes comes in handy. FIRST, get out of the sweaty uniform top and into something dry, and if needed, warm. Then, grab a teammate or two, or someone you got to know in the race, and go for that nice easy cool down. The jog will not only flush the junk in your legs, but also give you an opportunity to review your performance in your mind or out loud and/or just relax. It will also make it much easier for you to get back to effective workouts and feel more recovered. Best, by the way, to get this started 10-15 minutes after your finish.

Warming up, cooling down. Easy things to do. Easy things to ignore. Your choice.

Run on.