The Ultimate Running Warm Up Techniques
The first few minutes of a run set the tone for the duration of the runner’s workout or race. However, are you warming up correctly? Here, running warm up techniques and why they are important will be discussed.
What is a Warm Up?
When our bodies transition from rest to exercise, there are a number of physiological factors at play. A warm up is the conversion period where runners “wake up” their muscles and cardiovascular system in order to prepare for the work ahead. In many ways, a warm up is akin to priming a pump. Warm ups can take on many different forms and often include light walking or running, dynamic exercises, and sprints.
In some instances, the warm up might take longer than the actual work out, particularly for sprinters or middle-distance runners. Ultimately the importance of warming up comes down to the simple fact that the body cannot perform optimally without proper preparation of each individual system.
What Happens at the Onset of Exercise?
To fully understand why warming up is important, it is necessary to discuss the changes that take place in the body when exercise begins. Have you ever started a run, workout, or a race and thought that the first 5 – 10 minutes felt as though they were the most difficult?
This phenomenon is completely normal and it is due to the fact that the body undergoes the most physiological changes within the first few minutes of exercise. In fact, the majority of an athlete’s energy is expended during the transition from sedentary to active.
When an athlete first begins his or her workout, a significant increase in fuel is required in the muscles. However, there is a lag time between the moment that exercise begins and the initial conversion of carbohydrates or fat for energy.
For instance, the body only has enough adenosine triphosphate to fuel an athlete’s muscles for 10 seconds, while the anaerobic system can provide enough energy to sustain a runner for 2-3 minutes. However, once those stores are depleted the body must work hard to convert fat or glycogen stores into usable energy. Therefore, the initial sensation of feeling out of breath or having tired and heavy legs is simply due to the short window of time where no energy is transferred to muscle tissue.
As the athlete continues to exercise, a steady state is reached and the body no longer experiences the same sensation of fatigue. A dedicated warm up period ensures that the energy systems in the body are working at optimum capacity, which leaves an athlete’s muscles feeing ready to go, as opposed to tired and heavy from the onset.
Benefits of Warming Up
Besides helping the body be better prepared for hard work, there are a number of additional benefits of warming up. These include:
A recently published review1 of the literature regarding injuries to both recreational and professional athletes examined the importance of incorporating a warm up into daily activity. Here, a significant amount of evidence is provided which suggests that a proper warm up prevents muscular injury during exercise. A warm-up protocol should be completed within 15 minutes immediately prior to activity in order to reap the most benefit. The researchers hypothesize that injury risk is mitigated due to improved flexibility, range of motion, and blood circulation prior to activity.
Runners who adequately warm up will experience enhanced performance. In one study2, 24 NCAA Division 1 athletes were given a 4-week dynamic warm up or static-stretching routine to perform before exercise, particularly the 300 yard shuttle run, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, broad jump, 600 m run, sit-and-reach test, and trunk extension test.
The athletes who completed the dynamic warm up showed significant performance improvements, including faster 300-yard shuttle and 600-m run times, whereas athletes who simply performed a static stretching routine saw no performance enhancements.
Muscle activation is important for both injury prevention and running performance, and a full dynamic warm up is necessary for engaging the proper muscles. One particular study3 examined two groups of well-trained distance runners. Runners performed a warm up consisting of slow running and stretching, while a second group incorporated bounding and sprinting exercises.
Before and after the warm up the contractile properties of vastus lateralis and quadriceps femoris muscles were measured, with significantly different results. After the sprinting and bounding warm up, athletes were found to exhibit improved muscle activation, as evidenced by increased torque and level of activation in the muscles.
Warm Up Techniques
There are a number of warm up techniques that a runner can utilize in order to perform his or her best. These include:
Physiologically, the body requires a minimum of 7 minutes to fully warm up before exercise. The best way to jumpstart energy production, increased blood circulation, and to prevent shock to the cardiopulmonary system is to engage in light walking or running for 7 – 15 minutes.
Following walking or running, a dynamic stretching routine is recommended. A common misconception is that static stretching is beneficial for an athlete; however, dynamic warm ups have been scientifically proven to be more beneficial for injury prevention and performance (discussed above).
In short, dynamic stretching keeps the body in motion, which continues to increase core temperature and improve blood flow to the necessary muscles and joints. Perhaps most importantly, dynamic stretching improves range of motion, while static stretching can temporarily hinder muscular force. Beneficial dynamic exercises for runners include:
1.Leg Swings: Stand facing a stationary object and swing each leg side to side 8 – 12 times. This exercise opens up and activates hip muscles, such as the adductor and abductor. Next, stand with your hip next to the stationary object and swing each leg back and forth 8 – 12 times. Here, hip flexors and glutes will be activated.
2.A-walk: Stand with proper posture and raise your left knee while swinging your right arm forward in slow motion. Concentrate on activating all muscles that are used in running. For instance, your toe on your left foot should be pointed towards the sky, your glutes in both legs should be firing, and your core should be engaged. Balance on the toe of your right foot for three seconds, then take a step forward and repeat on the opposite side. Take 10 – 20 steps total.
3.A-skip: Begin A-skip in the same manner as A-walk; however, instead of going through this exercise in slow motion, use your right leg to spring off the ground while your left knee drives toward the sky. When your left leg returns to the earth, spring upwards on that leg to drive your right knee upwards, and repeat the motion. Continue with this skipping exercise for 10 – 20 skips total.
4.B-skip: Like A-skip, drive your left knee into air while using your right leg to spring off the ground. However, instead of simply dropping your left leg back to the earth, activate your hamstring to bring your left leg parallel to the ground before your foot touches the ground. Repeat this motion with the opposite leg for 10 – 20 skips total.
5.C-skip: Even though running primarily involves forward motion, it is important to activate muscles in different planes. C-skip is similar to A-skip; however, once the left leg returns to the ground, the left knee is driven again towards the sky but at a 45o angle from the body. Then, the left leg drives forward once more for three total steps with the left leg before the right leg mimics this motion. Take 15 total steps with each leg.
6.4-Direction Lunges4: Standing with legs hips-width apart, lunge forward with right knee bent at a 90o angle. Return to starting position then lunge to the right side, again bending the right leg 90o. Next, return to starting position and lunge backwards, this time bending the left leg 90o and extending the right leg backwards. Finally, lunge to the left by extending the left leg and bending the right knee 90o. Repeat this circuit four times with each leg.
Finally, complete your warm up with 4 – 8 x 100 m strides. This exercise should be performed at 75 – 90% effort in order to put the finishing touches on your preparation and ensure all muscles are activated and firing properly.
In addition, strides jump-start the cardiovascular system by increasing heart rate and blood pressure and preventing cardiovascular shock when the workout or race begins. An alternative to strides is to complete 4 x 30 seconds of hard running during your warm up run.
Overall, a proper warm up is necessary for reducing the sensation of fatigue during the initial stages of a workout or race, as well as for preventing injury, promoting muscle activation, and enhancing overall performance. A short 7 – 15 minute run followed by dynamic drills and strides are optimal for helping athletes get the most out of their warm up routine in order to start training for faster times.
1. Shrier, I. (2008). Warm-Up and Stretching in the Prevention of Muscular Injury. Sports Medicine, 38(10), 879. doi:10.2165/00007256-200838100-00006 Link
2. Herman, S. L., & Smith, D. T. (2008). Four-Week Dynamic Stretching Warm-up Intervention Elicits Longer-Term Performance Benefits. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(4), 1286-1297. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e318173da50 Link
3. Kof, B. %., & Strojnik, V. (2007). The Effect Of Two Warm-Up Protocols On Some Biomechanical Parameters Of The Neuromuscular System Of Middle Distance Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(2), 394-399. doi:10.1519/00124278-200705000-00018 Link
4. Riemann, B. L., Congleton, A., Ward, R., & Davies, G. J. (2011). Biomechanical Comparison of Forward and Lateral Lunges Using Standardized and Self Selected and Step Lengths. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(Suppl 1), 832-833. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000402318.25608.62 Link