How (and why) to warm up for running

We recently shared two programs to help new or injured runners progress their volume to help reduce injury risk. In that article, we shared a general running warm up that we recommend for most people. We think warming up for running is so crucial that it deserves its own post. We see too many people skip a warm up altogether. Or, they use valuable warm up time ineffectively.

Why do we need to warm up at all? What should a good warm up accomplish? What's the best way to structure a warm up? How should you warm up for running? Let's dig in.

Why warm up?

There’s several main reasons that we think warming up is essential, and peer reviewed research supports us on these. The majority of the points below come from an excellent research review titled “Warm-Up Strategies for Sport and Exercise: Mechanisms and Applications” by McGowan, et. al.

  1. Improve performance.

    • This is where the research is strongest. Performance across multiple athletic domains improves after a warm up.

    • Muscles that are warm have better metabolism, or use of energy, improved muscle fiber performance (cross-bridge cycle rate), better power output and force development (via increased muscle fiber conduction velocity), and better oxygen uptake.

  2. Improve muscle activation.

    • This mechanism works through a concept called “post-activation potentiation.”

    • McGowan, et. al. states, “The recent activity of a skeletal muscle is known to have a significant effect upon a muscle’s ability to generate a subsequent force.”

    • After activation via a specific exercise (called “potentiation exercises” in the research), there is subsequently increased output and electrical activity along motor neurons, which can improve the quality and power of muscle contractions.

    • This has been studied most in short-duration efforts requiring maximum power output, such as a sprint or heavy weightlifting effort, but clinically we have found it to be true for endurance athletes as well.

  3. Better psychological preparedness.

    • Research shows that completing a warm-up allows time for visualization and concentration, which does in fact translate to performance (or, potentially, ability to persevere through a tough workout).

  4. Reduced injury risk.

    • We are firm believers that a properly structured warm up can reduce injury risk. There is some debate here, but there is ample research showing that various warm up programs can reduce injury risk. There are several postulated mechanisms, including increased joint range of motion, better muscle/tendon compliance, and improved control and movement patterns.

    • A randomized controlled trial published in JAMA concluded that “neuromuscular warm-up reduces noncontact [lower extremity] injuries in female high school soccer and basketball athletes.” This was a large trial that included almost 1,500 athletes. It demonstrated that a neuromuscular warm up (which is very similar to what we recommend) was associated with decreased non-contact injury occurrence in female soccer and basketball players (link). Athletes who were in the group that completed the warm up had a 65% reduction in “gradual-onset” (or overuse) injuries, a 56% reduction in “acute noncontact injurues,” and a 66% reduction in “noncontact ankle sprains.” This is huge.

Now that we’ve established why we should be warming up, what are the objectives of a good warm up?

Knee valgus position:  Note the thigh adducting towards the inside, knee dropping inward, and a lack of space between the legs. Also notice that this causes a collapse of the medial longitudinal arch of the foot. Failure to control this position is associated with many lower extremity injuries.

Knee valgus position: Note the thigh adducting towards the inside, knee dropping inward, and a lack of space between the legs. Also notice that this causes a collapse of the medial longitudinal arch of the foot. Failure to control this position is associated with many lower extremity injuries.

  1. Increased body temperature. Many of the physiological mechanisms work due to increased body temperature. So, you should be breaking a light sweat after your warm up. Just don't overdo it; you want to be warm, not boiling.

  2. Prepare joints for the range of motion demands of the upcoming activity

    • Most athletic activities require full joint range of motion, or close to it. A warm up should take the joints that will be used through these ranges of motion in a safe, progressive, and dynamic way. You don’t want the first time that a joint sees a new range of motion to be fast and under load. For example, if you’ve been sitting all day, you’ll want to get your hips and ankles moving in and out of flexion and extension prior to running.

  3. Activate or “potentiate” key muscles that provide stability for the upper or lower extremity.

    • Following the research above and clinical experience, we want to perform some quick exercises that activate key muscles for the areas of the body that will be involved in the activity. For running athletes, this usually means something in both the hips and lower legs. For the upper body, we’re talking about the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers.

  4. Practice motor control, force absorption, and technique

    • Most athletic activities require coordination (what we call motor control) and absorbing force or controlling load through either the upper or lower extremities. The final piece of a comprehensive warm up is performing a few quick drills or exercises to improve your ability to control movements and absorb loads without compromising your technique or biomechanical position.

    • An example of this is the knee valgus position for athletes who run or jump. This position which looks like the knee uncontrollably dropping in and dow n while running, jumping, squatting or lunging. Inability to control this position, especially in the presence of speed, uneven surfaces, or high loads, is associated with numerous lower extremity injuries from ACL tears to IT band pain. We find similar patterns in the shoulder and even in the trunk and spine. So, to complete your warm up, you’ll want to perform drills that help you control your position and technique. In the large study linked above, these drills were the core piece of the warm up routine that was associated with reduced injury occurrence.

What about stretching?

Don't be that guy (or gal).

Don't be that guy (or gal).

The most common mistake that we see people make is simply doing a few static stretches prior to exercise. Unfortunately, this doesn't accomplish many of the objectives outlined above. Some studies have even found that static stretching can increase injury risk. While there are some applications of static stretching for athletes, a warm up is not one of these. That guy who stretches his hamstrings before every run? Don't be that guy.

A running warm up: putting it all together

Click above to view a YouTube playlist of each warm up exercise.

Now, how do we put all of this together into a efficient routine? While a warm-up is essential, it needs to be just that: a warm-up. If it’s too long, fatigue can compromise performance, or take away time from your activity. So, some planning is essential, and exercises that have dual purposes are essential.

Here’s our suggestion for a general running warm up. It accomplished all of the objectives outlined above, and targets many of the muscles that are commonly implicated in running-related injuries. Once you get the movements down, you can accomplish it in less than ten minutes. Check it out by clicking on the video:

  • 1-2 minutes: Jump rope or lightly jog in place. Focus on landing softly and quickly.

  • 10 Quad / Ham Hinges each side

  • Clam shells to fatigue, or 40 reps, each side

  • 10 side squats each side

  • Posterior tibialis activation to fatigue, or 40 reps, each side

  • 10 air squats

  • Banded side steps, to fatigue, or 1-2 minutes

  • 10 single leg bounds each side, gradually increasing the distance

  • If you are performing an interval workout, follow this with 1-2 minutes of running at a gradually increasing speed.

We’ll be sharing warm ups for other activities in coming posts. Stay tuned!

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