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Finlay McAndrew  •  Running Training •  12.08.2021 •  6 min read

How to warm up before running

If you look around at the start of any race or mass run, you’ll see a whole host of different warm-up routines. These might range from people trying to touch their toes, doing star jumps to sprinting up and down a bit of road. There seems to be a lot of uncertainty amongst runners about how to warm-up before a run.

It doesn’t help that there is still some debate about what is the most effective way to warm-up for exercise. However, there are some rules that have been clearly established and some very useful guidance on how we can best prepare to run.

This article will take you through what you definitely should not do before a run and then discuss the best ways to get ready to run based on research.

What not to do before you run

You should never do any static stretching before you run. For clarity, a static stretch is when a stretch is held in a set position for a period of time. Some runners still do this despite being told it’s an ineffective way to warm-up. Furthermore, it can be detrimental to performance and could even increase the chances of getting injured. Stretching will reduce musculoskeletal stiffness. This will result in an impairment of the potential elastic energy stored by the stretch-shortening cycle.

What is the stretch-shortening cycle?

If you were to jump as high as you could, you would squat down and then jump back up. The reason you can jump higher after squatting down is because of something called the stretch-shortening cycle. Elastic energy is stored in your tendons and muscles when you squat and then returned when you jump back up. Running is effectively hopping and we go through this cycle every time we land.

Static stretching will reduce the effectiveness of this stretch-shortening cycle and therefore increase the amount of work we have to do to propel us forward.

What's the purpose of a warm-up?

This section details what the purpose of a warm-up is and what you’re trying to achieve. Understanding this is important because there are a variety of ways to warm-up and knowing what you’re trying to achieve will enable you to come up with a plan that is right for you.

The aim of a warm-up is to generate an increase in body and muscle temperature. Lower body and muscle temperatures tend to result in a decline in performance. So, it’s well established that an effective warm-up will be aimed at raising the body temperature to a point where performance can be optimised but not to the point at which fatigue is induced.

The other main aim of a warm-up is to improve psychological readiness. A set pre-performance routine can help a runner get into the right frame of mind before a run.

What should you do to warm-up?

Before a race/event

We all want to perform at our best at a race or event that we’ve been training for so it’s really important to warm-up properly. We know that the main objective of the warm-up should be to increase body temperature. Your warm-up routine should be focused on achieving this goal.

The best way to increase body temperature and get the working muscles to the right operating temperature is by doing dynamic stretches and movements. These movements should be specific to the movements of the sport that is about to be done. An example dynamic warm-up routine could involve the following movements:

  • Air squats
  • Lunges
  • Hip circles
  • Lateral leg swings
  • Hamstring kicks
  • Calf raises
  • Back slaps
  • Arm circles

This dynamic warm-up is simple but effective. It will work all the major muscles groups and joints being used. You could easily come up with different exercises that would achieve the same effect though.

Length of warm-up

There isn’t a set time for how long this should be done for. Each person will need a slightly different amount of time to warm-up. The goal is to warm-up so you’re aiming to do as many reps as you need to feel like your heart rate and temperature are elevated. You also want to feel a slight burn in the muscles. I would normally do 8-10 repetitions of each exercise. Then repeat that two or three times depending on how I feel.

Generally, I do this dynamic warm-up routine about 35-40 minutes before the start of the race. It would probably take me a good 5-10 minutes to go through. I would then go for a 10-15 minute easy jog to increase my heart rate and warm my body up more. Adding a few surges, short bursts of faster running up to race pace, to get my legs ready to run quickly.

Stay warm

Please note that running is an important part of a warm-up but it isn’t enough in itself to get the body and muscles properly ready. It won’t work the deeper muscle fibres and tissue like squats and lunges will. Dynamic movements will increase the operating temperature of these areas more effectively.

As already mentioned, our performance will deteriorate if muscles and body temperature lower too much. So, it’s important to keep yourself warm in the time between finishing your routine and the start of the race and maintain a passive warm-up. Ideally have some additional layers with you that you can take off just before the start and give to someone.

If it’s a cold day, using a warming muscle rub can be a good option to help prevent you from getting cold. Body Glide Anti Chafe Balm is a great option for this. There’s no mess because it’s like a deodorant stick and it will help assist with a warm-up in cold conditions.

Before a training run

What you do before a training run definitely depends on the nature of the run. If you’re doing an easy to normal run session then doing a full warm-up isn’t essential. You’ll probably find that making the first few minutes easy will be enough to get you into your stride.

It’s definitely worth doing some sort of a warm-up before you do a harder run like intervals or a longer distance run. Doing a dynamic routine, like the one detailed above, before you head out is ideal.

Runs which are longer or faster demand more from our bodies so it makes sense to prepare for them accordingly. This may reduce the chances of getting injured in these types of runs and improve performance.

This also gives you a chance to practice the routine that you will do before a race. Having a set routine and strategy before a race is a very effective way to reduce nervous tension and get your mind readied for the task at hand.

Warm-up and improve performance

An effective warm-up will improve running performance in a variety of ways. It will improve the efficiency of enzyme activity, improve oxygen delivery, increase power output and help reduce the likelihood of injury.

An effective warm-up involves raising muscle and body temperature so the desired outcomes are achieved. A dynamic stretching and mobility routine that is followed by a short run is the optimal way to get this result. Furthermore, static stretching should be avoided as this could be detrimental to performance and even increase the chances of injury.

Anyone that is looking to improve their performance at their next race should look at incorporating this style of warm-up into their pre-race routine. Runners should practice this routine in training ahead of harder and longer runs so that they are prepared.

The best way to increase body temperature and get the working muscles to the right operating temperature is by doing dynamic stretches and movements.

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