Head to your local track after work on a weeknight and the scene is likely to resemble a three-ring circus. You’ll see runners jogging counter-clockwise in the outside lanes, some skipping, kicking and high-kneeing their way across the infield and others sprinting back and forth on the home straightaway.
Like a team of acrobats getting ready to practice their performance routine, these athletes are in various stages of warming up for the speed workouts that will help them dial in their race-day fitness.
But why are they doing all these different things prior to running laps around the track? And is it necessary?
We caught up with 2:23 marathoner Blue Benadum, founder of the L.A. Speed Project and a coach with the Nike+ Run Club in Los Angeles, to address the whys and hows of warming up properly so you can get the most out of your next speed workout or race.
Why is it important to warm up for speed workouts?
Speed equals high intensity. Coming from a calm, rested state into high intensity too quickly is often the biggest cause of injury in athletes. Humans are actually one of the few animals that have the ability to go faster at the end of a bout of running. This makes us great endurance athletes but also requires that we ease the body into motion. Warming up increases your range of motion and generates heat, which is necessary for muscle, ligament and tendon elasticity. These are crucial factors in the explosive nature of fast running. Another benefit to warming up is that it raises the heart rate gradually to promote energetic efficiency. A sudden spike in heart rate causes a higher rate of glycogen to be exhausted, as the aerobic system and fat burning capabilities are effectively shut off.
What are the key elements of a good warm-up routine?
A good warmup routine should be full body, dynamic in all your movements and build from simple to complex. Here are the four key parts:
1. A light jog. This is a great start as it engages the entire body but is very easy and limited in its range of motion. The heart rate increases slightly and blood flows to all the right places.
2. Dynamic Stretching. This is different from conventional, static stretching. In dynamic stretching, the stretch is only held for a second or two and then released and repeated a handful of times. This prepares the body for motion without robbing the tissues of some of the necessary tightness needed for elastic recoil, or energy return—basically the tissues’ ability to store and return energy like a spring. The goal should be to do enough dynamic stretches to target the major muscle groups that will working during exercise, such as the glutes, hamstrings, calves, quads, core, chest and back.
3. Activations and drills. Activations use the muscles in a more explosive manner. The goal is to take the body through specific ranges of motion, often exaggerated to hyper-prepare the mind and body for the upcoming effort. Activations typically isolate specific parts of the body to ensure that a particular muscle is ready to do its job. An example would be a straight leg kick back, where the athlete leans slightly forward, hands on the waist for balance, slightly bending one knee for stability while pointing the other leg straight back, then lowering and lifting the leg. This activation specifically warms up the glute muscle. After activations, the body is ready for drills. This is everything from running in place, high knees, butt kicks, A-Skips, B -Skips, carioca, high-knee skips and a sideways shuffle. Drills get the entire body working together to create explosive, exaggerated movements.
4. Strides. The last step is to run a few short build-up strides, an interval of anywhere between 50-100 meters where running speed is steadily increased to just below max effort by the end—unlike a full sprint, where the speed is max effort all the way through.
RELATED: What are strides?
How long should your warmup routine take?
The rule of thumb is: The shorter the race, the longer the warmup. The reason is that intensity and speed should be higher the shorter the distance you racing. In a marathon, because the intensity is lower than a shorter distance race effort, some of the warming up will be done during the race itself. And because the duration of the race is so long, it is best to save as much vital energy as possible for the race itself. In a 5K, the opposite is true. There isn’t enough time to warmup during the race! If you warmed up during the race, the race would be finishing just as the body was reaching its comfort zone. While it will vary from one athlete to another, when racing a mile up to a 5K, try warming up for about 45 minutes. For a 10K, 20-30 minutes and about 10 minutes for a marathon. The minimum for any speed workout is 10 minutes, but preferably 20-30 minutes when looking to really push in a hard workout.
Can (or should) you do the same warmup routine before races?
The biggest difference between your race warmup and your workout warmup is the that the race distance really dictates the duration of warmup. In workouts, the duration is less important relative to workout time, but all the ingredients—jogging, dynamic stretches, drills/activations and strides—remain the same for workouts and racing.