Race Warm Ups: Dos & Don’ts

One of my pet running peeves is the way that people warm up (or don’t warm up) before races.

Time and time again, whether it’s a social 5k fun run in Auckland or whether it’s a major marathon with 40,000 runners and two million spectators, I see runners making all sorts of mistakes before they’ve even crossed the start line.


Here are the two biggest mistakes I see:

  • In a 5k race, runners typically don’t warm up enough.
  • In a marathon, runners typically warm up too much.

Both can be hugely detrimental to your performance on the day. So here’s a little guide to warming up for your 2014 races.

Short Races: 10k or Less

If you’re running your first 10 or 5k and simply looking to complete the distance, the name of the game will be to get as warm and as limber as possible by doing as little exercise as possible.

Start with five minutes of walking. Then do some arm, head and ankle circles. Finally, you might like to find a pole or a fence to hold onto in order to do some gentle leg swings (firstly back and forth and then side to side across your body). These dynamic stretches will wake your muscles up without taxing your system too much.

Then when the race starts be sure to not go out too fast (there will be a mad, adrenalin-fuelled rush at the sound of the gun). Just ease into your jogging rhythm and focus on staying as relaxed in your style as possible.

If you’re comfortable with completing the distances of 5 or 10k, but are out there to race or get a new PB, your warm up should be very different.

It should begin with 10-20 minutes of light jogging (emphasis on light). Then should include some light drills (these shouldn’t be hard and should gradually build to greater ranges of motion) and the same dynamic stretches listed above. Finally, at least five minutes before the race starts, do two to four 50-metre fast runs. These should be about opening up the legs, feeling a strong and efficient style, and just reminding the body of what it’s capable of. Walk between each 50m run, and be sure not to fatigue your muscles—the strides should just wake them up.

Spend the remaining five minutes keeping warm and loose but also relaxing and calming your mind and heart rate. Get to know someone on the start line, crack a few jokes and take a moment to appreciate the fact you are fit and healthy.

Long Races: Half or Full Marathons and Beyond

Before the 2012 Olympic 10,000m final, eventual champion Mo Farah barely did anything to warm up for the race. He had two rounds of 5,000m races coming up in just a few days, the race evening was reasonably warm, and any extra work  (beyond just limbering the muscles) could compromise his ability to run his best in the race.

At every marathon I’ve entered I’ve been amazed at how many runners are nervously jogging on the spot, doing stride outs, and, heaven forbid, doing squats and lunges!

You are about to run 42.2km at close to your jogging pace (unless you’re an elite athlete). Do you usually get up on a Sunday morning and do 30 minutes of strides and lower body exercises before your two-hour long run? No, I didn’t think so. At the 35k mark will you be wishing you did another set of 20 lunges before you started? No way.

If it works for Mo Farah in a 10k race, it should work for most of us in a half or full marathon. Just take it easy. Relax. Actually aim to reach the start line as un-fatigued as humanly possible.

Ten minutes before the Auckland Marathon started last year I was lying on a park bench, with my legs raised, catching up on sleep. However, I didn’t want to set off straight into marathon pace on totally cold muscles, so I filled in the final 10 minutes with some dynamic stretches and then a super light jog to the loo. But that was enough to protect my muscles (from any early cramping or pulled muscles). This small amount of exercise left me as fresh as possible on the start line.

Finally, knowing what to do in your warm up is a great way of staving off those pre-race nerves. If you’re following a plan that you have practised in training you’ll feel in control of the situation and in a much better position to achieve your goals.

Happy running.

This article is an entry by Hayden Shearman on his training blog at Stuff.co.nz (published 22 January 2014). 

3 responses to “Race Warm Ups: Dos & Don’ts

    • Hopefully this provided a little guidance. Of course, everyone is different and weather conditions play a big part, so you might need to play around with it and discover what works for you.

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