Endurance athletes are in constant pursuit of improved speed, strength and durability. We’ll wear special shoes, buy into fancy therapies, and subscribe to designer diets all with hopes of becoming better runners. Whether or not these things make a difference depends on the individual and the approach, proving there are few measures that work for everyone. An exception, however, is the warm-up. One of the most time-tested running practices, studies show that it enhances performance and prevents injuries for just about anyone who has ever laced up a pair of kicks.
Despite being one of the oldest tricks in the book, research on warming up continues to be conducted. Most recently, a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport emphasized why putting a bit of effort into your warm-up is particularly important. Upon recruiting a group of well-trained distance runners, the researchers guided runners through a warm-up routine that included a traditional 10-minute self-paced jog, and strides with or without a weighted vest. The scientists also monitored participants during a series of jumps and a treadmill test.
Most notably, the study showed a significant uptick in peak running speed and running economy after the participants warmed up with the weighted vest. They concluded that the strides with the vest had a “priming effect,” in that the exercise helped ready the runners’ legs for subsequent performance. While it is no surprise that a warm-up had an impact, this research demonstrates that the type of warm-up you do matters.
Why Warm Up?
Aside from priming your legs for exercise, there are other vital reasons to warm up. At the most basic level, it does just what the term suggests—it increases the temperature of your muscles so they can contract and relax more efficiently.
“We want the core and peripheral temperature to rise to get the body ready to roll into the actual pace and effort demand of the given workout,” explains Todd Weisse, head coach of the Williamsburg Track Club in New York City and director of Operations of Track and Field and Cross Country at Columbia University. “The second purpose is to get the central nervous system revving. Without a warm-up that approximates the feel of the hard work you’re about to do, you often cannot emotionally accomplish the workout well.”
Your muscles need a bit of forewarning before high-intensity exercise ensues, but so does your mind. “The warm-up is a time for me to remind athletes that the focus is on the goals we are moving towards and how this particular workout fits into the overall picture,” Weisse adds.
By prepping your brain to expect the upcoming hard running session, you are more likely to persist in the face of self-doubt, screaming muscles and busting lungs.
How to Warm Up
While you don’t necessarily need to wear a weighted vest, the most recent research points to the fact that the best warm-ups aren’t simply comprised of a few minutes of easy jogging around the track. Weisse emphasizes the importance of tailoring your warm-up for the activity, whether that be 100-meter sprints or a long tempo run.
“For sprints, the nature of the workout is far more explosive due to the start reaction, the initial movements of the start, and the demands of the event itself,” he says.
Distance runners often require a comparable warm-up in terms of time, but may include different types of drills.
Regardless of the type of running you’ll be doing, dynamic drills are one of the most effective warm-up methods. Research demonstrates that a dynamic warm-up not only increases overall flexibility, but also improves running performance. Conversely, more traditional static stretching has been shown to be detrimental to a runner when performed prior to competition.
“For all athletes I coach, I have them do a dynamic warm-up and strides in addition to jogging,” says Weisse.
An Ideal Warm-Up for Runs of Any Distance
For athletes running anything between a mile and a marathon, the best bet is to start the warm-up with some easy jogging, then move on to dynamic drills and strides. While it can depend on the athlete and the workout itself, give these basic dynamic moves a try next time you’re prepping for a hard workout. All that is needed is 20 meters of real estate and a bit of focus to get the movements right.
- Butt Kicks: Moving forward in a straight line, alternate picking your feet off the ground and kicking your butt with your heels. Focus on executing that movement at a high cadence, rather than moving forward at any particular speed.
High Knees: Similar to butt kicks, you’ll want to maintain a fast cadence as you alternate between bringing your knees up towards your chest. Hold your arms at your side the same way you would if you were running, and work on popping up each knee with force and fluidity.
High Skips: These are just like the skipping you did when you were a kid, except they are slightly exaggerated. Focus on getting off the ground and driving your knee upward with each skip. Simultaneously drive your opposite arm forward and up to support this movement.
Frankenstein: With your arms outstretched in front of your body like Frankenstein, alternate between kicking each leg up, aiming your toes at your palms, and keeping your legs straight. Like a toy soldier, keep your toes pointed upward as you kick.
Walking Lunges: Step forward and slowly lower your body to form 90-degree angles with both your front leg and your trail leg. Be cognizant of keeping the knee of your front leg aligned with your ankle, instead of over or in front of your toes. Purposefully raise your body back up, and alternate sides.
Leg Swings: Using a fence or wall for balance, swing your right leg forward, keeping it straight, and then swing it backward. Work to bring the leg up and back as far as is comfortable. Do 10 swings, and switch sides. Next, try swinging your leg across your body and back. As range of motion improves, you’ll be able to swing farther in all directions.