Done correctly, warming up and cooling down may offer help in reducing your risk of injury and improving your athletic performance.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

You're ready to hit the elliptical machine or the running trails. Before you do, though, consider doing a brief warm-up, followed by a quick cool-down session when you're done exercising. Sure, a warm-up and cool-down may add a few minutes to your exercise routine, but they also might help you stay healthier.

Warm-ups and cool-downs generally involve doing your activity at a slower pace and reduced intensity.

Warming up may help prepare your body for aerobic activity. A warm up gradually revs up your cardiovascular system, increases blood flow to your muscles and raises your body temperature. Warming up may also help reduce muscle soreness and lessen your risk of injury.

Cooling down after your workout allows for a gradual recovery of heart rate and blood pressure. Cooling down may be most important for competitive athletes, such as marathoners, because it helps regulate blood flow. Cooling down doesn't appear to help reduce muscle stiffness and soreness after exercise, but more research is needed.

Although there's controversy about whether warming up and cooling down can prevent injuries, proper warm-ups and cool-downs pose little risk. So if you have the time, consider including them in your workout routine.

Warm up right before you plan to start your workout. In general, warm up by focusing first on large muscle groups, such as your hamstrings. Then you can do exercises more specific to your sport or activity, if necessary. A warm-up may cause mild sweating, but it shouldn't leave you fatigued.

Here are some examples of warm-up activities:

  • To warm up for a brisk walk, walk slowly for five to 10 minutes.
  • To warm up for a run, walk briskly for five to 10 minutes.
  • To warm up for swimming, swim slowly at first and then pick up the tempo as you're able.

Cooling down is similar to warming up. You generally continue your workout session, but at a slower pace and reduced intensity.

Here are some examples of cool-down activities:

  • To cool down after a brisk walk, walk slowly for five to 10 minutes.
  • To cool down after a run, walk briskly for five to 10 minutes.
  • To cool down after swimming, swim some leisure laps for five to 10 minutes.

If stretching exercises are part of your workout routine, it's best to do them after the warm-up or cool-down phase, when your muscles are already warm.

Stretching can improve range of motion about a joint and flexibility. Stretching may also help improve your performance in some activities by allowing your joints to move through their full range of motion. However, studies haven't consistently shown that stretching helps prevent muscle soreness or injury.

Finding time for regular aerobic workouts — plus warming up and cooling down — can be challenging. But you can make the time if you get creative. For example, walking to and from the gym can be your warm-up and cool-down. Remember, be kind and give your body time to adjust to the demands of your workout.

Feb. 06, 2014