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The 5 Rules of Warming Up for a Run

Warm-ups are not just about getting prepared to run; they can be a space to make gains in your fitness as well.

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Humans cannot be powered up like a smartphone; we require warming up. Studies show that surgeons become quicker and more accurate during operations throughout the day as their hands and minds get into the groove. When you’re asking your body to perform a technical and energetic task, it needs time to switch on all the necessary functions. Runners are no different.

If you go straight into a max effort without priming, injuries happen. It’s a main reason why coaches always recommend a warm-up. “It’s not nearly as fun as running, I totally get that. I 100 percent agree,” says Jenni Nettik, coach and owner of Mercuria Running. “But if your goal is to be able to continue to run, that’s what is going to help you be able to continue to run.”

Not warming up also hinders your performance. A systematic review in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that completing a warm-up before running, cycling, and swimming improved performance almost every time.

“If you go from super low heart rate and then all of a sudden you’re like boom out the gate, you’re not going to be able to continuously increase your speed or effort during that work-out. It’s just going to level off at that first interval or whatever you’re doing,” says Nell Rojas, head coach for Rojas Running.

If you’re skipping the warm-up because you think you don’t have time, think again: “You’re actually not getting a maximum return for your effort. Injury is the worst-case scenario, but more than likely you’re just not getting the kind of effort that you need to get in. You’re wasting some of your valuable time with running sub-par stuff because you weren’t physically ready,” says Mackenzie Wartenberger, head coach of the University of Wisconsin women’s cross-country team and assistant track and field coach.

Even if you know why you need to do it—we’ve all heard the injury prevention spiel—it’s easy to skip without a routine to lean on. Here’s all the info and plans you need.

Rules of a Solid Run Warm-Up

We asked three running coaches to share their top tips for building a better warm-up routine.

Rule 1: The Intensity of the Workout Should Match Your Warm-Up Effort.

“A lot of the science out there that is coming out more and more talks about if you’re just getting an easy aerobic day in, a really exhaustive warm up routine isn’t always necessary,” says Wartenberger.

For a short run, studies have shown that a short warm-up (8 x 60 meter sprints with dynamic stretches in between each sprint, in the case of one study) was just as effective as a long warm-up. “If you have a super comprehensive warm up routine that you’re using for easy-based runs, you’re just kind of wasting your time,” says Wartenberger.

On the other hand, for a long run, hard effort, or a race, an exhaustive warm-up could be just what your body needs. Elite and collegiate runners can have warm-ups that last 30 minutes to over an hour. “Our hardest workout days are essentially the very same warm-up that we would do for a race. They’re that comprehensive,” says Wartenberger.

Rule 2: Don’t Skip Those Strides and Drills.

A lot of coaches recommend incorporating strides and drills into the warm-up because your brain-body connection also needs to be fired up. The faster a nerve signal moves from your brain to the muscle it’s calling on, the faster you can perform. Drills and strides in a warm-up enhance that neuromuscular connection, which is the control panel for how we move. It’s the junction at which our nervous system talks to our muscles. Strides are short sprints (50 to 200 meters) at varying efforts that help to get the heart rate up.

“Strides are one of the most important things we can do. If you’re going to try to do a fast run or a rep on a track or you’re doing hill repeats, doing some strides so that the first step that you take at a high-quality pace isn’t that first rep is super important,” says Wartenberger. They help you transition from easy to harder running.

Running drills (such as A-skips, B-skips, and high knees) help to activate the body and create a precedent for your running form. “[Drills] neuromuscularly remind your body of correct form,” says Rojas. They also “neuromuscularly remind your body how it’s supposed to activate and work during your run.”

Rule 3: Pass on the Static Stretches.

Static stretching has gone through waves of approval and disapproval in the scientific literature in terms of acceptability for a warm-up. For now, it’s on the disapproval train.

“Basically your tendons work like rubber bands. If you think about a rubber band and you lengthen it for five minutes or three minutes or two minutes and you try to shoot it, it’s not going to go as far. The elasticity isn’t going to push you as far as if you were just to pull it back and shoot it right away,” says Rojas. Wartenberger agrees that it just doesn’t make sense for what you’re asking your body to do: “When we’re running, we’re about to go do repeated muscle firing for a set duration. We need to be getting our bodies ready for that physiological movement, not a 30-second static hold,” she says.

However, a 2015 literature review published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism looked at hundreds of past studies and argued that the research concluding that static stretching impairs performance didn’t take into account how stretching is actually utilized in a warm-up. They found that static stretching, when incorporated into a full routine and after an aerobic component, shouldn’t cause performance impairments. However, static stretching won’t achieve the muscle warming effect that dynamic stretching will.

Dynamic stretching (pulsing and holding the stretch for no longer than two seconds) definitely has its place within the runner’s warm-up.

Rule 4: Make It Personal—and Consistent.

Not every warm-up is going to be the same. Intensity should match the effort of the workout, but what works for your warm-up will vary based on your time constraints, your body, and your training plan. “You can probably get everything you need in a warm-up in less than 10 minutes if you spend a little bit of time figuring out what your body needs to feel activated and ready,” says Wartenberger.

The key to success, like many things, is consistency. After you find a warm-up routine that works for your various workouts, keep it the same through your training cycle. “I think that a warm-up routine should stay consistent because it helps you prepare,” says Wartenberger. You’ll build muscle memory, which will help trigger your body into workout mode when you complete your warm-up day after day.

Because the warm-up is also part of the workout, the routine gets easier and more fluid. “Over time, you’re also going to be building strength,” says Nettik.

Rule 5: Don’t Forget the Warm-Up Run.

The length of your warm-up run will vary depending on your mileage, but anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes at conversational pace is what most people need. “The first mile is all about easing in. That’s all about being comfortable,” says Nettik. During that short warm-up run you can expect your heart rate to increase as well as your breathing, before they both come back down. “When it comes back down, your heart rate is low and you can run easy. I’d say that is when your body is more prepared for a workout,” says Rojas.

Nettik asks her runners to use that time to focus on at least one aspect of their form that they are working on. That form cue in the warm-up can help to activate that neuromuscular connection into the rest of the run.

Woman at sunset on the end of the road after running.
Photo: Getty Images

Get Into the Right Mindset

Warming up your mind is just as important as warming up your body. It’s a chance to set yourself up for success and turn off the static of what else is going on in your life. Here are three ways to bring your brain power to the run.

Create a Ritual

“As women we tend to wear a lot of hats. For my college women, for myself, for my friends that I run with that are mothers and professionals, we tend to bring a lot of that to our workout,” says Wartenberger. “The warm-up tends to be this really sacred space where you can let those things go and get into a really individualized mindset where you’re just focused on what you need to get done for the next 20 minutes, or 30 minutes, or an hour, or however long.”

Visualize

Do you get pre-race jitters? Wartenberger recommends adopting visualization into your warm-up. “It can be a huge comfort and a huge anxiety-management tool to kind of visualize the routine that’s going to lead to a great race,” she says.

Set an Intention

Jenni Nettik has her runners set an intention before their workout. Some people will even take a moment to journal about their intention or any mantras they want to use. “Setting an intention right at the beginning of the run has been super effective, especially during this high time of stress so people can remember whether or not they want to be nice to themselves on a particular day or whether or not they want to challenge themselves,” she says.

Ready to get ready? This warm-up from Nettik will take you about 5 minutes; for a serious run and a serious warm-up, try this 30-minute one from Rojas.