When to and How to Warm Up for Better Race Performances

The Happy Rower: Flickr images (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thehappyrower/)

What is a really simple thing that a significant proportion of runners skip?  Also, what concept has a pretty long history of being misunderstood and poorly approached?  The pre-race warm-up.  If you’ve put in the training, you have just 2 things between yourself and that PR that you really want: a good warm-up and a smart race.  Let’s focus on one of those things in this post.  First, we’ll dispel some common misconceptions about warming up, then we’ll talk about the right way to warm up for a successful race.

The Three Biggest Misconceptions About Pre-race Warm-ups

  1. If I warm up, I’m going to waste my race energy!  You’ve got way more glycogen stored in your muscles than you could possibly expend in a short race (5k, 10k, 10-miler).  So, to be direct, quit thinking that way.  I’m willing to agree that a long warm-up for a long race can be counter-productive, and I’ll talk about how to adjust your warm-up based on the distance.  But no warm-up for fear of being tired? Just silly.
  2. Jogging and some stretching in place while I wait near the starting line is good enough for a warm-up!  If you want your body to be ready to race, you need to work from rest to race intensity before you toe the line.  Jogging is a good start to a warm-up, but it’s not complete.  And there’s plenty of evidence that points out how static stretching before exercise has more of a negative than positive impact.  A better strategy is to spend some time in each of your gears.
  3. Warm-up routines look silly and I’m just going to embarrass myself!  Do elite runners look silly and embarrassing?  Because they do a whole lot more than the jogging and the stretching.  I’d rather look silly before the race and win it than look like a cool kid and get beat.

When to Warm Up

Time your warm-up (for any race) so that you finish up about 5 minutes before you’ll start racing (it would be ideal to finish 2 minutes before, but race organization isn’t always precise…better to leave a few minutes wiggle room).  How long will the warm-up take? Everyone is a little different, so the only way to know is to practice.  Go through the warm-up routine in full before a speed or tempo workout a couple weeks before the race, note the time, then use that to plan out your race-day approach.  Make sure you include some time to change shoes (if you will be doing that) and visit the potty.

How to Warm Up

The following components should be in each warm-up (except for a marathon or longer).  The length of time for each is what varies.

  1. Leg Swings: complete routine for all distances
  2. Lunge Matrix: complete routine for all distances
  3. Easy Jogging: 10 minutes tops for a marathon, 20 for a half, up to 30 for a 5k
  4. Skips: complete routine for all distances
  5. Visit the Potty
  6. Change in Race Gear (singlet, shoes, etc.)
  7. Medium-pace Running (in between easy and race paces): 5 minutes for a half, 3 x 2 minutes with 30 second jog for a 10k, 4 x 2 minutes with 30-second jog for a 5k
  8. Jog to Start Area
  9. Strides: 4-5 x 100-150m for all distances up to half, stride pace should be just under race pace for first 3-4, then at race pace or a touch faster for the final one
  10. Wait for Race
  11. Race

Component Specifics

Leg Swings: Either freestanding or with your hand on something for balance, swing one leg at a time in all planes (I do 8-10 swings forward, side, and back with a straight and a bent knee.  It’s important to start easy and swing a little bit farther with each swing.  Don’t hurt yourself.

Lunge Matrix: Gentle lunges in each plane (forward, backward, and lateral). I do 4 with each leg in each direction.

Easy Jogging: You didn’t think I was going to explain this one, I bet. Well, it’s important that you run this portion of your warm-up EASY. SLOW. Ever seen an elite runner warm up before a race. It’s amazing how slow they start. Take note!

Skips: I’ve been using Coach Jay Johnson’s skips routine for a couple of years. Check out his video for details: http://vimeo.com/3576411 (this also has a link to a post he wrote on warm-ups which is even more detailed than mine, and a really good overview).

Medium-pace Running: This is the missing link from easy to race effort.  Don’t skip this step, or you’ll be shocking your system when you shift into race pace gear.

Strides: Think about light turnover, not hard effort for these.  Don’t run them all-out, either.  It’s important to not go beyond race pace, or you’ll go out too fast. My strides mantra is “Control, control, control.”

Why is This So Complicated?

Warm-ups need to be complicated because our bodies are complicated systems.  They need a variety of stimuli to prepare for the best possible race.  And I promise that the routine gets more straightforward once you are used to it, and it really does build confidence before a race.

Marathon Warm-up

Want a simple warm-up?  Before a marathon, I do this: Jog for 10 minutes or less to the start area.  Visit the potty.  Walk to the start.  Try to stay calm.  Run.

About Caleb M.

Caleb Masland is the founder and head coach of Team Wicked Bonkproof, a group of regular people who like getting after it one mile at a time. Caleb has enjoyed some moderate local running scene successes in his own right, but his number 1 mission is to get other dailymilers running faster and smarter by sharing what he has learned along the way. When he's not traveling for his career as a Technology Consultant or spending time with wife and son, you can find Caleb on the roads and trails around Boone, NC. Caleb has an unreasonable longer-than-longshot dream of running in the 2020 Olympic marathon trials, and all he has to do is turn his 5k pace into his marathon pace to achieve it!
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