Be sure to do both general and specific warm-up activities before races and faster workouts.
In high school I performed static stretches before every run: 30-second toe touches and the like. I’ve since learned that this is one of the worst possible ways to prepare for a run. That’s because long-hold stretches activate a protective neuromuscular reflex that temporarily reduces maximal force production capacity. What this means is that you can’t jump as high after static stretching, and running is, of course, a form of jumping.
I am told by people who know better than I that it’s okay to do static stretching before a run as long as you do something dynamic after completing your static stretches. So if, for whatever reason, you like to do static stretches before a run, it’s okay to do them; just be sure to do some walking lunges and other such dynamic movements afterward and before you start running.
Of course, this is only relevant to high-intensity runs such as races and speed workouts in which you test the limits of your performance. It doesn’t really matter if you start an easy run with compromised maximal force production capacity caused by prior static stretching. In fact, it’s not necessary to warm up at all before an easy run. Easy running itself is a good warm-up, so it’s built right into that kind of workout.
Warming up is necessary before any race or workout in which your pace will exceed your lactate threshold pace, or the fastest pace you could sustain for an hour in a race. A proper warm-up before high-intensity running will enhance your performance and also reduce muscle damage incurred during the run, so you’re not as sore the next day.
There are two components to a good warm-up: general and specific. A general warm-up elevates the core body temperature and lubricates the muscles, allowing them to contract and relax more efficiently. A specific warm-up increases neuromuscular activation, preparing the muscles to fire in the specific way they will be asked to do in the race or workout.
The ideal general warm-up for fast running is slow running. Sure, riding a bike or inline skating would elevate your core body temperature just as well, but obviously there is a degree of specificity in jogging that makes it the ideal way to begin your warm-up for a running race or workout. It takes at least 10 minutes to do the job; 30 seconds of nervous jogging in place behind the start line won’t cut it. Elite runners typically jog for 20-25 minutes before races. That’s too much for many age-group runners, who may begin to feel the first hints of fatigue after 25 minutes of jogging.
After you complete your jog, it’s time for your specific warm-up. This entails repetitive movements that take your major joints through a full range of motion. Start with gentler movements and work toward ballistic actions. Here’s a suggested sequence:
Forward/backward arms swings
Side-to-side trunk rotations with arms extended outward
Forward/backward leg swings
Side-to-side leg swings
Hopping in place with locked knees
Jogging forward while rotating hips from left to right
Jogging in place with high knees
Jogging in place with butt kicks
Do each of these movements for 20 seconds.
Finally, cap off your specific warm-up with a set of strides. Run for 20 seconds at race pace or at the pace you’re targeting in the workout. Stop, walk for 20 seconds, turn around, and run 20 seconds again at race/workout pace. Complete four of these 20-second strides. Naturally, this is as specific as a warm-up can get. Strides serve the threefold purpose of grooving your target race or workout pace, completing the neuromuscular priming process, and making the start of the workout or race less psychologically shocking.
Run your strides as close to the start of the race or workout as possible. Ideally, you’ll finish your last stride 30 seconds before the gun goes off.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress 2011) and a Coach and Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. Find out more at mattfizgerald.org.