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How should you warm up for a long distance run?

Post author James Hood running in a competitive race

I often get asked how best to warm up before a race. What seems like a simple task, is not always as straightforward as you might think. Having tried to perfect this over a number of years, I think I have finally settled on a routine that works for me. You will see lots of runners doing different things before a race, and you will wonder (as I have done), should I be doing this too?

And that’s why it’s important to have a plan. Getting your warm up right can really prepare you physically and mentally, allowing you to focus on the race you’ve trained hard for. It can really make a big difference to your performance and hopefully you can keep all those pre race nerves at bay!

The following points are guidelines based on my experience and some scientific principles

The first question to answer is why bother with a warm up? Essentially this can be broken down in to injury prevention, performance and psychological preparation. Running flat out straight from rest places large amounts of stress and load on muscles, tendons and other tissues in the body. These tissues need gradually exposing to load so they don’t overstretch and potentially result in a muscle strain. You are likely to perform better if you are able to connect your brain activity to your muscle activity. This is known as neuromuscular function and a warm up which involves some skill based exercises (e.g. lunges), will activate more muscle fibres and improve stride mechanics, so we are more efficient and coordinated during the race. Finally, a thorough warm up should help you build confidence in the minutes leading up to the race and allow your mind to focus on the task in hand.

How long before your race should you start warming up?

25- 30 minutes. You want to arrive at the start line slightly out of breath and sweating. If you start warming up too early, you’ll probably end up tired, standing around getting cold and overthinking your race. Likewise, if you’re rushing to get your warm up done, you are likely to feel nervous from being ill prepared and this can often negatively affect performance.

What should I include in my warm up?

At least 10-15 minutes of slow running should sufficiently allow the body to prepare itself for the exertion it is about to undergo, raising your body temperature and increasing blood flow to your muscles. You should aim to run at a pace that is 2 minutes per mile slower than your race pace - i.e. if you are aiming for 6 minute miles during the race, then 8 minutes per mile is about the right speed for your warm up.

The next stage is to dynamically stretch your muscles. Gone are the days where holding static stretches for long periods would constitute a warm up. In fact, research has shown that static stretching can negatively impact performance and is not recommended prior to a race. Instead, you should aim to include exercises such as lunges, high knee drills, heel kicks and leg swings (to name a few). For more detail, here is an article on dynamic stretching for runners

Finally, to get your body used to running slightly faster than race pace (but over a short distance), you should aim to complete some ‘strides’. A 'Stride' is the name for certain type of warm up exercise - To perform a 'stride', find a flat area and run a distance of 60-80m, at a pace that’s around 70% of a maximum sprint. Try to focus on good form (e.g. high knees and a tall posture) but don’t exaggerate your running style too much or overstride. Aim to perform 6-10 'stride' exercises to help your body prepare.

In conclusion, this 25-30 minute routine should help reduce the risk of injury, improve your performance on race day and better mentally prepare yourself. By ensuring you have a structure in place, you can help control pre race nerves and allow your mind to focus on the race. There is nothing worse than making a warm up on the spot in the few minutes before your race! Remember the phrase ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’!

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