One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about running, and admittedly it’s not unique to running, is that there are no short cuts to success. There is no magic pill you can take, there’s no gold pass to the front of the line; it’s not something you can practice for a few days and expect to succeed. Success is largely dependent on putting in the miles week in and week out. However, if you have never done a proper warm-up, performing one before your next race may be the closest thing to a magic pill for your performance. You may have always thought warming up is for the people winning the race, but it is essential to maximizing your performance on race day.
Take a normal run for example: the reason you tend to feel better once you get a couple of miles into your run is because when you start your muscles are stiff, their range of motion is limited, and your body isn’t acclimated to a higher heart rate and effort level. If you tend to feel better at mile 3 than mile 1 of your daily runs there is no reason to think race day should be any different. Gradually warming the muscles up and introducing a higher level of effort through the warm-up process will prevent that heart-in-your-throat feeling in the first mile of your races. A warm-up allows you to be more comfortable early in the race and that translates to feeling better later in the race and having more in your legs for the finish.
Start Slow, Finish Faster
A proper warm-up varies slightly depending on whether you’re running a 5k or a half marathon but the structure remains the same. (Disclaimer: you do not need to warm-up before the marathon, 26.2 miles is plenty of running.) Arrive to the race early so you can start your warm-up 40-45 minutes before the start. The warm-up run for a 5k or 10k should be 20-25 minutes, and for a half marathon it should be 10-20 minutes. The warm-up should start out very slowly; the goal is to gradually warm and loosen the muscles by getting the blood moving and the body used to the increase in effort. Those first few minutes should be a crawl and then as you move into the middle of the warm-up gradually increase the pace to your normal every day training pace. Over the final 4-5 minutes of the warm-up increase the pace a little faster, not hard running, but finishing 20-30 seconds a mile faster than your every day easy pace.
This last part sounds like it may tire you out for the race, but if you’ve ever done interval workouts you’re probably used to feeling better on the second or third interval than on the first. This is because most people aren’t properly warmed up for the first one, and it’s important that you’re ready for the first one on race day because it is essentially one long interval. If you aren’t warmed up well for a 5k you may spend the entire race getting warmed up.
You should plan to finish your warm-up run about 20 minutes before the start of the race. The next part of the warm-up process is light, active stretching. It’s important to avoid extensive static stretching immediately prior to racing. Static stretching takes a little bounce out of your legs and can leave them feeling a bit deadened, but active stretching increases the range of motion in your legs without stealing that pop. An example of active stretching is a leg swing where you stand and swing one leg back and forth in front of you and behind you, starting lightly and increasing the range of the arc as you loosen it up. Increasing the range of motion in your legs prior to racing is important to be able to fully open your stride when running faster. Perform 10 minutes of active stretching and use this time to make a last minute run to the restroom if you need it.
The final step in the warm-up process is pre-race strides. The strides should be 20 to 30 seconds in length, and you should run 4-8 of them prior to racing. Start the first few seconds of these easily and then progress forward with the final 5-10 seconds are at or a touch quicker than 5k pace. The purpose is to get the legs used to the quicker speed as well to introduce a little lactic acid to the muscles so the body can better tolerate it during the race. Take enough rest to fully catch your breath between the strides and finish them about 5 minutes before the start so you are fully recovered for the race. Then get to the start line, take a few deep breaths, and enjoy the race!
If you’re running a big race and need to be in the corral well in advance of the start you should still do a warm-up even if it means starting a little earlier and standing around a little longer. You can do strides on the way to the corral and active stretching once you’re there. Some warm-up is always better than none, even if you have to modify it a bit. In those situations, try to start the first mile a touch slower and use it as an extension of the warm-up. If the weather is hot, trim the warm-up run down to 10-15 minutes in order to keep your core temperature from getting too high. Wearing a wet t-shirt that has been soaked in ice water for your warm-up is an excellent way to get your legs warm without overheating your core temperature.
There aren’t many quick fixes in the sport of distance running, but a proper warm-up is one that can have a tremendously positive impact on your race performance.
*This Article Originally Appeared in the February 2017 Issue of Running Journal