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You're ready for a workout, so you step out the front door, run three miles, take a quick shower, and move on with your day. Does this sound familiar? If you're the type of person who tends to focus on the actual workout and never really bother to warm up before a workout or cool off after a workout, you may need to rethink your approach. That's because regular exercise before and after exercise is key to feeling your best and avoiding injury.
First Thing: The Importance of Warming Up
"Warming up prepares your body for the work ahead," says Jeffrey Pritchard, performance specialist at Bridge Sports, which develops training programs for teams and clubs across the country. "This raises your body temperature and increases blood flow to your muscles." These two things will help you perform better during exercise and reduce your risk of injury.
"When you start exercising, you put stress on the body," says Nick Savey, a personal trainer with Equinox in Chicago. "Without a proper warm-up, you're more likely to tear a muscle, sprain a joint or slip a disc in your back." Pritchard likes to compare muscles to rubber bands. If it's cold and you try to stretch it, it's more likely to break or tear. But heat it up first, and then you can stretch it to its full range of motion. Research has also shown that warming up can reduce soreness (so-called delayed-onset muscle soreness) in the days following strenuous exercise.
So what should you do? Consider moving your body to relax everything. "The old idea of static stretching before exercise is outdated -- you want to get your body moving and raise your heart rate and body temperature," says Pritchard. Start with light cardio, like jumping jacks or an easy jog. Then move on to doing some mobility work, like sprinting, swinging your legs, or rotating your torso. Lastly, if you're going to do strength training, do a simple version of the movement you'll be doing in the exercise. So, if you want to pull harder, do the same movement multiple times without the bar.
Closing on a high note: The importance of calm
It's natural to want to go on with the day after exercising, but calm down after a few minutes. "Without cooling, blood may pool in the lower extremities and muscles, and blood pressure will remain high," Savin said. "Proper cooling allows the body to reverse these effects and remove waste products from the muscles, optimizing recovery and reducing pain for the next few days."
The key here is a gradual decrease in intensity. If swimming, take a few easy laps. If you run, jog or walk instead. When your heart rate and breathing feel close to normal, you can start. Finally, wrap it up with some stretch. "Your muscles are primed and everything is relaxed, so now is the perfect time to increase your range of motion," says Pritchard.