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

Before you jump on the elliptical machine or hit the running trails, consider doing a brief warm-up first. And, think about following your workout with a quick cool-down session. Sure, a warm-up and cool-down may add a few minutes to your exercise routine, but they also might reduce stress on your heart and other muscles.

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

Warming up helps prepare your body for aerobic activity. A warm-up gradually revs up your cardiovascular system by raising your body temperature and increasing blood flow to your muscles. 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 pre-exercise heart rate and blood pressure. Cooling down may be most important for competitive endurance 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. Plus, they seem to give your heart and blood vessels a chance to ease into — and out of — an exercise session. So if you have the time, consider including a warm-up and cool-down 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.

Begin by doing the activity and movement patterns of your chosen exercise, but at a low, slow pace that gradually increases in speed and intensity. This is called a dynamic warm-up. A warm-up may produce mild sweating, but generally won'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 for five minutes or so, 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, with a little creativity, you can probably fit it in. For example, walking to and from the gym can be your warm-up and cool-down.

Aug. 10, 2016