Warming up correctly is an essential part of preparation for a race or hard session. A good warm up carries numerous benefits and when executed correctly can help athletes perform to the best of their ability.
Benefits of a Warm Up
The vast majority of athletes claim to feel better after a warm up. And for good reason, because there are several benefits to warming up correctly:
- Increased range of movement.
- A warm up raises the heart rate, close to that which will be experienced during the session or race.
- Psychological preparation. It's an opportunity to visualise an upcoming race and to adjust mental focus.
- Increased muscle temperature. Warm muscles offer less resistance so you will be able to move more efficiently and economically. Warmer muscles are also less likely to pull or tear.
- Diversion of blood to muscles from other organs.
- Dilation of capillaries. Meaning that blood flow to working muscles is improved.
- Increased production of fluid to lubricate joints.
- Priming of the nervous system. Coordination, reaction and response is improved.
- Decreased injury risk. For several of the above reasons, such as better range of movement and warmer muscles, injury is less likely following a decent warm up.
- Your body increases its production of various hormones responsible for regulating energy production. During warm-up this balance of hormones makes more carbohydrates and fatty acids available for energy production.
Components of a warm up
For some - especially those partaking in longer distances - a warm up simple consists of a jog, but there are several components that can be included in a full warm up. The following are presented broadly in the order in which it's best to complete them.
Walking is generally unnecessary before a race but can it can be useful to include in a couple of cases:
- When the warm up is taking place very early in the morning and you need to gently ease your way into things.
- When you've been sitting for a long time immediately prior to the warm up (e.g in a car travelling to the race). Walking for a few minutes can help stretch things out a little before you move on to anything more demanding.
Unless you've included any walking then jogging/running is usually the first thing you should do during your warm up. And for races of longer duration, jogging may be all that is required for a warm up.
A good strategy for this phase of the warm up is to start at a gentle jog and gradually progress to race pace or just below by the end. But do be wary of running too hard or spending too long at close to race pace during this run. You don't want to end up fatigued.
How long you spend running will vary according to taste, but 10-20 minutes works well for most.
There is evidence that static stretching can impede performance and there is very little to suggest that it will improve it. For this reason it is generally best not to include it as part of your warm up.
However, if there are specific areas that are particularly tight, or if a coach/physio has advised certain static stretches, perhaps for injury avoidance, then you might want to include some.
if this is the case then it should be included as early as possible in the warm up - after a jog so that the muscles are warm, but before any specific drills. Following static stretching with specific drills can mitigate any negative effects.
Dynamic stretches are generally used to ensure that a full range of motion has been achieved prior to an activity. It's best to include these after a jog so that the muscles are warm and pliable.
We highly recommend Brad Walker's The Anatomy of Stretching for those who are serious about stretching.
The inclusion of running drills in a warm up routine is more useful for middle distance and sprint events than it is for longer distances.
There is a crossover between certain drills and dynamic stretches. Certainly the majority of running-specific drills will involve similar movements that will be experienced while carrying out the session or race.
One large benefit of including running drills in a warm up is that they help the athlete to tune in to the various movement patterns that will be employed during a session or race.
Before putting the finishing touches to a warm up, including 60-90 seconds of moderately hard running (at about 30-40 minute race pace) can help ensure that all the necessary systems and energy pathways are engaged.
Don't include this harder running too close to race start. Roughly 15-20 minutes before is about right and will give you plenty of tie to recover.
Strides are the icing on the cake of any warm up. They are a must for middle distance runners and are also a great way of making sure everything's moving for those running longer distances. Including 3-5, with plenty of recovery between each, will suffice.
For shorter races (middle distance and shorter) strides will probably serve well to provide the athlete with some race pace preparation. And for races that take up to about an hour to complete then the faster running phase as described can be done at race pace.
For races due to last longer than an hour, then including a few minutes at race pace (keep a close eye on the watch here if you have one to make sure you are actually running at race pace) can be useful. It'll help you tune in to race pace and to avoid going off too quickly (which is very very common with all that adrenaline flowing and dozens of people whizzing around you).
This should be the last thing you include before a race, unless things are delayed, in which case performing a few strides to keep limber is a better option than standing around getting cold and stiffening up.
Factors Affecting Warm Up
The best type of warm up to do will vary according to factors such as temperature, time of day, your age, how many races you are running on the particular day (common with sprints and middle-distance track events), and most importantly the race distance.
One of the goals of performing a warm up is literally to raise body/muscle temperature. Obviously on a hot day, your muscles are much closer to their optimal operating temperature than they will be on a cold day, so less work is needed.
One way of raising body temperature is to perform exercises, which will also achieve the other goals of the warm up. Another way is by wearing extra clothing.
Be careful to wear only what is necessary. On a cold day you will probably want to be wearing extra clothing as near as possible to the race start. On a hot day, don't wear clothes unnecessarily. If warming up in shorts and a vest is more comfortable then do that.
Time of Day
It tends to be the case that athletes perform better later in the day after the body has naturally become more limber and the mind more alert.
It also tends to be the case that harder training sessions take place in the evening whereas lots of distance races take place in the morning. For this reason it's important to learn how your body reacts at different times of day.
The chances are that you will need more time to warm up in the morning than later in the day and need to begin a little more gently than usual. Do consider adding some walking and very slow jogging to the start of your warm up for early starts. And if your goal race is in the morning then practise warming up in the morning and discover exactly what you need to do to get ready.
Older athletes generally find that they need more time than youngsters to prepare for the race. This tends to be realised through experience, so it's not something that you need to to worry about necessarily as long as your warm up is individualised.
Number of Races
At track meetings it's not uncommon to run twice or more in the same day. Sprinters especially commonly double up over either 100m and 200m, or over 200m and 400m, and will usually run again as part of a relay. Middle distance runners often perform an 800m and a 1500m in the same day. At championships, it's not uncommon to have a mix of heats, semi-finals and finals on the same day. And then there is the fact that athletes often find themselves in unfamiliar races in order to score points for the team.
In the case of several races being performed in the same day, the best strategy is to warm up fully for the first event and then perform an abridged warm up for each subsequent event.
Of course, the warm up will vary according to the distance and how hard the athlete plans to run. For example, an athlete planning to perform well in an 800m and a 1500m on the same day, and who is asked to join in with the 400m in between these two races in order to "get a single point" for the team could choose to just run the 400m at a moderate pace. In such a case they would not need anything like the type of warm up that those racing flat-out would require.
The best type of warm up will vary wildly depending on which race you're preparing for. Most marathoners will get away with a gentle jog and a few dynamic stretches, or even with no warm up at all. Marathon pace is not particularly demanding for short distances and it won't be a massive shock to the body to start running at marathon pace without any warm up at all.
Strictly speaking it's not race distance, but race duration that we should consider when determining how best to warm up. For example, somebody expecting to complete a half marathon in about three hours will warm up quite differently to an elite athlete expecting to run around the hour mark.
As a general rule, the shorter the race distance, the longer you should spend warming up.
Warm ups should be highly-individualised. It is very unlikely that what is best for another athlete is going to be what is best for you, even if you're the same age, ability and are running in the same race.
It can be very tempting to jog with friends, team-mates and even rivals before a race, especially when they explicitly ask you to. Keep a firm resolve and stick to what works best for you. It's much more fun to chat during the cool down anyway.
The best way to determine the best warm up is to try different things and to note what works for you. Luckily you don't need to wait to race day to do this. You can get a very good idea of the effectiveness of a warm up routine by considering how you feel during sessions following that type of warm up.
Try varying things such as running speeds, time spent running, time spent on drills and types of drills, time spent stretching and types of stretches and the overall duration of the warm up. Get a routine ready so that come race day you can prepare with confidence. Don't be afraid to completely remove components of the warm up and to judge how you respond.
As explained in the previous section, the best type of warm up will vary according to several factors such as time of day and temperature. Be sure that you know what the best warm up is for different situations.
Sometimes races are delayed and you may not always have much room to warm up in. This happens quite often at track races. Or in a road race you can get stuck in a pen waiting for things to kick off. Have a few exercises prepared for such situations (e.g. jogging on the spot, running high knees) just to keep things moving until you get going.
Don't overdo it. Performance will be improved by raising normal body temperature slightly (assuming it's not already a baking hot day), but will be negatively affected by getting too hot. Similarly your race performance will be affected if you do too much during a warm up and end up fatigued as a result.
You want to be sure to stay hydrated on hotter days.
Do as little as possible
Do as little as possible to achieve your intended goal. Your goal is to prepare yourself physically and mentally to perform to the best of your ability. If you spend too long on a warm up you will at best be wasting time and at worst seriously upset your performance.
So far we've considered only physiological processes and benefits to warming up, but an often-overlooked part of preparing for a race is getting psychologically ready.
Whether this counts as "warming up" is debatable, but since your physical warm up and the final stages of your mental preparation will be taking place at the same time, you'll need to think about where to fit it into your routine.
This is something you can start doing in the days leading up to the race and keep repeating until you get to the line.
Imagine yourself running the race. For shorter distances it's possible to play out the entire race in your head. For longer distances, perhaps focus on the start, a point during the middle, and the finishing section of the race.
Be positive when visualising. Imagine that you're feeling good, see yourself overtaking rivals, imagine your response to different situations.
Types of Warm Ups
As a general rule, the shorter the race distance, the longer the warm up should be.
The following are examples of sample warm ups for a few different events. Used in combination with the guidelines given above they should provide a useful starting point.
Middle Distance (800m - 3000m)
Middle distance running is intense and the warm up should reflect this.
- 20 minutes progressive run starting at a jog and finishing at about one hour race pace
- 5 minutes dynamic stretches including leg swings and split squats (static lunges)
- 10 minutes running-specific drills
- 90 seconds at 15-minute race pace
- 5 × 10-second race-pace strides with walk back recovery
Races lasting 15 - 40 minutes
For most this will involve races from 5k - 10k
- 15-20 minute jog
- 5 minutes dynamic stretches
- 5 minutes running drills
- 3 minutes at 1-hour race pace
- 5 x 15 seconds strides at slightly faster than race pace
Races lasting 40 - 75 minutes
This covers races from 8k up to about half marathon for the majority of people. While these races can be intense there is less need to include the more vigorous components of a warm up since the paces are not particularly demanding early on in the race and will not stress the body significantly.
- 10-20 minutes jog
- 5 minutes dynamic stretches
- 5 x 15 seconds strides at about 10-minute race pace
Races lasting 75 minutes to 2 hours
It is debatable whether or not a warm up is needed for races at the longer end of this spectrum. On a cold day it is probably worth doing something, if for no other reason than to stay warm while waiting for the race to start. But you need to be wary of doing too much since you are much more likely to get fatigued when racing for longer periods.
- 5-10 minute jog
- 1-2 minutes at race pace
- 2-3 × 15 seconds strides at about 10-minute race pace
Races lasting 2 hours plus
It's unlikely much warm up is needed for these longer races. 2-hour race pace is not particularly demanding, particularly when well-rested and when adrenaline is flowing. On colder days it will pay to do a little jogging and keep moving to stay warm, but be careful not to do so much that you end up fatigued.
Warming Up for Sessions
The guidelines above apply as much to sessions as they do to races.
For interval style sessions, it's best to do the middle distance warm up. There are several benefits to be reaped from the warm-up components in addition to warming up. For example, strides provide several benefits, such as fast-twitch muscle stimulus and turnover, dynamic stretches can help flexibility and running drills will help improve running form.
For-less intense sessions, such as fartleks and threshold runs, 10-20 minutes of easy running usually suffices.