The Perfect Runner’s Warm-up

Confession time! How long did you spend warming up before your last run? Twenty seconds? Two minutes? We runners are often guilty of skimping on a warm-up, but trying to dive straight into a vigorous run is like attempting to start your car in fourth gear – inefficient, difficult and potentially damaging.
The warm-up has a number of functions; most importantly, it raises body temperature, increases heart rate and mobilises the joints. Furthermore, warm-up activities divert blood flow away from the internal organs to the working muscles, bringing oxygen and nutrients, and carrying away the waste products from metabolism.
The increase in body temperature also promotes the flow of synovial fluid, the liquid that surrounds and cushions joint surfaces to reduce friction. Also, synovial fluid makes muscles more pliable and less prone to straining or tearing. A study from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, found that warming up actually made running feel easier and more comfortable than setting off without one – probably due to a reduced accumulation of lactic acid.
While the main beneficiary of a warm-up is your physical body, the mind also benefits. You can use the warm-up as a time to think over what you are going to do in the session, to harness your focus and run through your goals.

So what’s involved in warming up?

Even though running is predominantly a lower-body activity, you don’t want to start running with stiffness or tension in other areas, so begin by gently mobilising the major joints of the body – the neck, shoulders, waist, hips, knees and ankles. All these movements should be very gentle, not vigorous swinging but controlled circling, bending and extending.
Next, take a walk, either on the spot or forwards, gradually increasing your speed and range of movement to break into a slow jog. You should feel slightly warm and breathless as a result of the warm-up.
Next come the running-specific moves – to enhance ‘neuromuscular coordination’ so that your running efficiency is maximised and economy (the amount of energy you ‘spend’ at any given effort level) minimised.
Hamstring swings put the hip through a full range of movement with no impact, and warm up the hamstrings. Stand side on to a support and with your knee bent, lift leg to hip height, and swing it up, down and back in a circular motion, the leg almost fully extended at the end of the back swing. Do ten to 20 on each leg, increasing the range and speed with each one but maintaining control throughout.
As well as improving coordination, reverse walking (yes, backwards!) activates the gluteal muscles, which are important in stabilising the pelvis during running. With each step, take the foot across the midline of the body (in other words, slightly across the front foot). Try four to six steps, and repeat eight times.
And finally, prone kicks – a must if you suffer with knee problems. These put your knee joints through a full range of motion without the impact of running – helping to get the synovial fluid moving, protecting and feeding the joint cartilage. Lie face down with your forehead resting on your folded arms and your tummy gently pulled in. Bring one foot up towards the bottom and then take it back to the floor, simultaneously bringing the other foot up to the bottom. Start slowly and gradually speed up, kicking for one to two minutes or counting 120 kicks. Don’t allow the pelvis to ‘rock’ from side to side.
Finish off with a few ‘strides’ – short runs (about 25m) in which you accelerate from a slow start to a brisk pace. Then you should be primed and ready to go.
There now! It cost you nothing, it was painless and, best of all, you may find it makes you a better runner.

Should I stretch before I run?

The jury is still out regarding whether you should stretch before you run. Studies looking at the inclusion of stretching in a warm-up have not found that it offers any additional injury-prevention benefits over and above a standard warm-up – and findings on subsequent performance are equivocal. However, if you feel particularly tight or tense in any specific joint or muscle, I recommend that you follow the general warm-up with stretches to loosen up that area. But one thing’s for sure: never stretch cold muscles – always do the warm-up first.
For more detailed information on how to stretch click here