I thought my running coach was kidding when he said I should get up and run a warm-up at 5:00 in the morning before an 8:00 a.m. 5K race. The sun wasn't even up yet! But no, he was serious. So I'd get out there and cover a couple miles at a just-barely-awake pace before showering, eating a bit and showing up at the race with an hour to spare - plenty of time for my second warm-up!
Years and many, many races later, I am grateful for that coaching advice and have incorporated warm-ups into all my races and most of my training runs as well. I've since learned more about dynamic stretching and self-massage as additional means of warming-up, and this is what I tend to do before a training run versus an easy run or walk.
Today, before our Sunday run in Cape Elizabeth, Mike and Rich were talking about how noticeable warm-ups had been to their race performances. As we stood around talking and waiting for the rest of the group, a couple Sticks got passed around for self-massage to quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, wherever! If you're not familiar with the Stick, come in to Peak Performance for a demo.
There are both physiological and psychological reasons for doing a warm-up, especially the double sessions before a race which I described above. Mentally, here's when you begin to keenly focus on the race you are about to run. The first warm-up run, which I (now) affectionately call my "wake-up call" is a time to think about my race plan - my goal, how I would run on that particular course, the competition, generally, how I am thinking and feeling about the upcoming event. The physiological reasons for the easy run is to gently wake up the body, limber up muscles, stretch out tightness without any risk of injury. It's an EASY run. The next warm-up just before the race is basically for the same reasons though the closer you get to the starting gun, the more race ready you want to be, that is when the gun goes off you want your heart rate up where you run your fast times. You'll already be perspiring. Muscles are warmed up and ready to continue to run...fast.
The warm-down or cool-down is extremely important after a run or workout, particularly if it was a significant effort for your body, that is very fast, intense, or for a long distance. Again, dynamic stretches and even static stretches are excellent, but an easy run first will really help to move lactic acid through the muscles, settle your heart rate down to a more relaxed rate, disallow muscles from stiffening up, and basically bring you back to homeostatis. And guess what? You have now turned a 5K race into at least a ten-mile day. Kind of nice for the weekly total.
There are many resources available on-line and in books to learn about dynamic stretching and pre-race warm-ups. Julia Kirtland for one, is a massage therapist and triathlete in Portland who writes a blog. Recently, Julia has talked about dynamic stretching, self-massage, and strength training. You can find it on her web site.