Warming up is an important part of any run. Whether you are running easy or hard, you will have a better outcome if you take the time to warm up beforehand. Yet many runners, probably a majority of weekend racers, either warm up too little or not at all. The result is a higher risk of injury during the race, and a lower output in terms of performance. If you want to get more out of your races and workouts (when simulating race conditions), look at your warm-up practices for areas to improve.
Why People Don’t Warm Up
Lack of warm-up generally happens for two main reasons. First, runners might think that they will use up too much of their energy before racing. In fact, as long as the warm-up is appropriately tailored for the race distance, our bodies actually can output more energy after a warm-up due to our priming of energy systems and metabolism. Second, runners might shortchange themselves in terms of the time available before their race or workout, and so they will need to jump right into the hard effort. This, of course, can be solved by simply planning ahead to allow the right amount of time for the workout.
The General Structure of a Good Warm-up
While you can tweak the specifics of your warm-up to suit your workout or race needs, the general elements should be included, in the following order:
- Dynamic Mobility Work (active-isolated stretches, gentle lunges, gentle squats) for muscle activation and joint mobility
- Easy Running (recovery effort, a.k.a. the “Kenyan Shuffle) for improved blood flow and energy system/metabolic activation
- Progressive Pace Running (a short bout progressing to near race pace/effort) for further energy system activation and race pace priming
- Running-specific Drills and Skips (see list of specifics below) for form priming and further mobility improvement
- Hard Effort Strides (hard but not maximal effort, just faster than race pace) for race pace priming and speed/form economy
Adjusting for Different Race Distances
There should be an inverse relationship between the race distance and the total warm-up time. So, you should warm up significantly longer before a 5k than before a marathon. But, you should maintain each of the elements of the good warm-up routine to ensure that you prime all of your systems before racing. For my athletes, I recommend about 25-30 minutes of easy and progressive running before a 5k (with the final 5-10 minutes progressive), and less than 10 minutes in total before a marathon (with a gentle progression for the final 2-3 minutes). Just keep this concept in mind: Harder/shorter races require more of a warm-up, longer races require less.
Warm-ups Before Workouts
Since you are simulating race conditions in terms of intensity and pacing during your workouts, it’s important to complete a warm-up. You get the same benefits (better performance, less chance for injury) when you warm up before a workout, and you also provide an added bonus: Building a consistent routine helps you learn how to get your brain into “race mode” so that you can perform better from a mental standpoint when it counts. Building that habit will put your mind at ease during races so that you can run your best.
I personally like to finish up my easy and progressive running, change into my race gear (flats, singlet, etc.), get a final sip of drink, then complete drills and skips. These moves are important to ensure that your joints are mobile, and they are a chance to practice (through over-emphasis) good form one last time. Just a few minutes of rehearsal will lead to better form, and therefore more efficient running which translates to faster race times. Here is the list of drills I suggest, in order (complete 25-30 meters of each):
- Shuffling side-to-side (25-30 meters in each direction)
- Backward skipping with high knees
- Forward skipping, light bounding form on the balls of the feet
- Quick marching with high knees and active arms (exaggerated running form)
- Bounding forward with high knees and active arms
- Slow running forward with high heel kicks (“Fanny Flickers”)
- Grapevine/Carioca (25-30 meters in each direction)
When all is said and done, building a repeatable warm-up routine will help you run better workouts and better races. You’d never see an elite runner start a race without a proper warm-up, so take a page from their book and you’ll be really happy with the results.