Running Warm Ups

How (and Why) To Properly Warm Up for a Run

Even seasoned runners skip warm-ups. They certainly know that they shouldn’t, and nobody else should either. Here’s why: Taking a few minutes to warm up muscles, joints, and the respiratory system can greatly help improve how the run feels on your body, and therefore, how enjoyable it is overall. A proper warm-up mobilizes joints and wakes up muscle groups so they fire properly during your run, which helps you feel better and perform at your best. It also minimizes the risk of injury. Plus, allowing your respiratory system to warm up gradually can make breathing throughout your run more fluid and less labored.

A systemic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning (2010) pulled evidence from 32 studies and concluded that warm-ups were shown to improve performance a whopping 79% of the time. 

Movements done in a running warm-up should be dynamic instead of static. Static stretches, where you hold a particular stretch for 10 seconds or longer, can decrease running efficiency and performance; they should be avoided in a warm-up. Dynamic movements gradually increase range of motion, engage muscles, and increase blood flow. (Note: Never push the range of motion in a warm-up.)

Since there isn’t one ideal warm-up for every human before every run, here are a few options.

Walking Warm-Up

Why do it: You’re pressed for time; you’re headed out on an easy jog; you want a simple, minimal warm-up.

At the absolute least, start off any run by walking 2 to 3 minutes before rolling into your running stride. Especially if you’ve been sitting or even standing at a desk all day, or just arose from sleep, walking helps ease your body into the motion of running. 

While walking, work out any kinks you feel. 

  • Tight low back? Rotate your torso by twisting your upper body back and forth a few times. 
  • Tight upper back? Clasp your fingers together and stretch your arms overhead, facing your palms to the sky. Add to that by reaching right and left a couple times each. 
  • Tight hips? Draw one knee at a time toward your chest, alternating legs while you walk.
  • Tight quads? Draw one foot at a time to your butt, pointing your knee down to the ground, alternating legs while you walk. 
  • Tight hamstrings? Extend a leg slightly in front of you, straighten that leg (keeping your knee soft) while bending your back leg, and lean forward over your front leg, alternating while you walk.

*Do not hold any of the above stretches for more than 2 seconds at a time, and keep walking.

A girl warms up before a run Photo: D Scott Clark/TandemStock

Slightly More Extensive Warm-Up

Why do it: You regularly feel aches and pains when you run; you’re older rather than younger; you want to improve efficiency and performance on your run.

It’s up to you whether you spend a few minutes doing this warm-up at home, in the gym, or at your group run’s trailhead meet-up. Ideally, you’d walk or even slowly jog a few minutes to first get the blood flowing. Since that’s not always logistically possible, the following exercises help increase blood flow. Choose three to five of the following, going by trial and error to see which combination of moves works best for you:

  • Leg swings: front and back. Stand tall while holding onto something with one hand like a fence post, wall, countertop, or tall piece of furniture. Stand on one foot, and swing the other leg back and forth 10 times. Switch legs.

  • Leg swings: side-to-side. Stand on one leg, facing the object supporting you. Swing the opposite leg side-to-side, extending out to the side and then crossing over your standing leg, 10 times. Switch legs.

  • Leg swings with added glute activation. Utilize the motion described above, but at the end of the leg movement across your body, bend your knee and angle your foot toward your body.  

  • Knee to chest. Stand on one leg and pull the opposite knee toward your chest while riding onto the toes on your standing leg. Hold for 1 or 2 seconds before switching legs. Repeat each leg 5 to 10 times.

  • Foot to butt. Stand on one leg and pull your opposite foot to your butt, keeping the knee of your bent leg pointing down toward the ground (and not out in front, or behind, your standing leg). Hold for 1 or 2 seconds and switch legs. Repeat each leg 5 to 10 times.

Full-on Warm-Up

Why do it: You’re planning on doing speedwork during your run either on the road, trail, or at a track; you’re about to race; you want the most out of your running workout.

Choose three to five of the above, and add three to five of the below:

  • Dynamic butt kicks. Take a jogging step forward and kick your butt with your opposite heel. Repeat with the other leg as you kick your butt down a track, path, field or road for 50 to 100 meters or so. This can also be done in place, aiming for 30 seconds or so.

  • Dynamic high knees. Bend your elbows and extend your forearms out in front of you. Bring one high to meet your hand on that side, then switch legs. (This is a quick back-and-forth movement.) Repeat for 50 to 100 meters, or do it in place for 30 seconds or so.

  • Skipping. Skip like you did while you were a kid, swinging arms freely and enjoying the full-body motion. (This one is hard to do in place.)

  • Skipping high knees. Skip like above, but drive one knee at a time to your chest while driving upward with the opposite arm. Repeat back-and-forth for 50 to 100 meters. (This is also hard to do in place.)

  • Lunges. Step forward with one foot, place it flat on the ground directly below your front knee (not behind or too far in front), and lower to your back knee while keeping your core tight and your body in control. Switch legs and repeat 10 or so times per leg. (This can be done in place or while walking/moving forward.)

  • Lunge with twist. Step forward with one foot, place it flat on the ground directly below your front knee, and drop to your back knee while keeping a tight core. Once at the bottom range of the lunge, rotate your upper body over the side of your front leg. Return to center, and switch legs, rotating over the front leg. (This can be done either in place or while walking/moving forward.)

  • Carioca/grapevine steps. Turn sideways, and step over your forward leg with the opposite leg. Put weight on the front leg, and move the back leg to the front, alternating back and forth. (It’s best to watch a video on how to do this.) For balance, keep arms wide. Aim for 20 to 40 meters. Switch directions (remain facing the same way while you reverse direction).

  • Strider pickups. Start off with a jog, then increase your pace in a progressive manner to end at about 80% of your maximum speed, jogging to slow down before coming to a stop. Do this over roughly 80 meters. Repeat 2 to 4 times, resting for 30 second to a minute between them.

Final Notes: For any of these warm-ups, do not overdo it. Avoid pushing your range of motion, or fatiguing before your run. The idea is to feel warm, ready to roll. Increase your blood flow and activate your joints and muscles. Trial and error will help you home in on the best warm-up, or combination of warm-up moves, for the kind of running you’re doing on any given day.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.