What is the Best Way to Warm Up and Cool Down for Running Workouts?

Q: “I’ve been running for a year now, and just finished my first half marathon! I usually just go when I go and stop when I stop, but I wonder if I should be “warming up” or “cooling down.” Is this important for my every day runs? What’s the best way to warm up and cool down before runs, races and workouts?” ~Sarah

Congratulations on your running success! The warm up and cool down are tools that when strategically implemented into your runs, can transform the quality and recovery of every run. They both function as a gateway to and from the demands of running. Much like merging onto and off of an expressway in your car, it is the ease of the transition that makes for a safe, effective journey.

The warm up gradually increases your heart rate and respiration, redirecting your blood away from where it goes at rest (stomach, organs) and to the running muscles in your arms, core and legs to readily supply oxygen to run. Although you can bypass the warm up, it is a little like going from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds. Investing just 3-5 minutes to properly warming up, will allow everything to get to where it needs to be before you begin to run (places everyone, places).

The cool down performs the same task only in reverse, gradually bringing your body back to reality. Skipping the cool down is effectively like going from 60 to zero and coming to a screeching halt. The blood continues to flow rapidly and pools in your legs, which can cause you to feel light-headed, dizzy and heavy legs.

The good news is you don’t have to change much to benefit greatly. Making just a few tweaks to your current running regimen is as easy as one, two three.

Warming Up

Step One: Walk 1-2 minutes at an easy effort to wake and warm the muscles. I prefer to extend this to two minutes if I’m running early in the morning as my body is cold from sleeping all night. Pace is relative. Some may find walking at 3 miles per hour (20min/mile) the perfect easy effort zone, and it may translate to 3.5mph for another. This can also vary based on how you feel on the day. The key is to keep it easy to transition from where you were (sleeping, sitting at work, driving) to gently introduce more demanding movement.

Step Two: For the next 2-3 minutes, continue to dial up the pace to a purposeful walking speed, one that is just outside of running (think of merging onto the expressway). Focus on neutral alignment with your body, pumping your arms in a pendulum swing, and rolling from heel to toe with quick strides.

Step Three: In the final minute of your warm up, sprinkle in dynamic warm up exercises. This is just a fancy way of saying, exercises that simulate the movement patterns of running. For example, skipping for 15 seconds, then walking for 15 seconds, two times (60 seconds total). If you find you like doing these (I do), you can add another minute or two to the warm up and add more sets of these exercises. Since my work life requires sitting and I run mid-morning, I like to walk backwards for this step as it opens up and activates the hips, which tighten when you sit for prolonged periods of time. For races that are 5-10K in distance, add a few 20-second pick up’s (Step Four), accelerating your pace to race effort. For longer races, warm up with a warm shower, foam roll, follow the warm up above and save your energy for the race.

Total Warm-Up Time: 3-5 minutes:

1-2 minutes in the easy “wake up” zone.

1-2 minutes in the brisk, I’m Walking on Sunshine pace

1 minute of dynamic warm up exercises (more if you love em).

Cooling Down

Step One: Ease on the running expressway and slow down to a very easy effort and jog it out for 1-2 minutes. This is a great time to reflect on the run, how it felt and make it a moment of gratitude for running.

Step Two: Walk at a brisk pace for one minute, gradually bringing your body back to its resting state.

Step Three: Slow your walking speed to that initial very easy effort. This pace should feel so easy, you could text. Optional cool downà You can have fun with this step if you have time and weave in lateral walking for 15-30 seconds one each side. If I’m on a treadmill, I’ll increase the incline to 3-4%, keep the speed very easy and walk sideways for 30 seconds on each side twice (Right, Left, Right, Left). It’s a great way too cool down, activate and strengthens your hips.


Total Cool Down Time: 3-4 minutes:

1-2 minutes easy paced running

1 minute brisk walking

1-2 minutes slow and easy effort walking with optional strengthening exercises (lateral walking, lunges…)

(Originally published in Women’s Running)




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