How to Warm Up Before Running, According to Experts

Sport & Activity

What you do before going for a run can have a positive impact on your performance—and your recovery.

Last updated: 19 September 2022
5 min read
How to Warm Up Before Running, According to Experts

When it comes to timeless advice for runners, the main tips are classics for a reason: Replace your running shoes about every 300 miles or six months, stay hydrated (even in cold weather), gradually build mileage and remember to warm up before running.

While the other strategies are relatively straightforward, the last one can inspire a number of questions. How long should your warm-up be? What type of movements should it include? And is it really necessary, especially when you're crunched for time? Like running itself, warm-ups depend on factors such as muscle tightness, level of fitness, past or current injuries, as well as the plan for the run.

"A good warm-up is key to a good run", said Amy Morris, RRCA-certified running coach, NASM CPT in Chicago. "Even 10 minutes of focused work with bodyweight movements can offer considerable benefits for getting you ready to run, such as warming up muscles and mentally preparing you. It helps with recovery as well".

(Related: So, What's a Callisthenics Workout, Anyway?)

Simple Warm-Up Ideas

Although running is seen as a lower-body burner, it's truly a full-body workout, Morris said. Not to mention, the core muscles offer stability to help keep you balanced, she added.

Because of that, she suggested doing a dynamic warm-up that includes mimicking the movements that you're about to do. For running, that would be an easy jog, for example, as well as movement that targets the hips, legs, glutes and core.

This may include:

  • 10 slow leg swings back and forth on each leg
  • 10 squats or jump squats
  • Lateral moves, such as 10 curtsey squats or 10 lateral lunges
  • Two or three core exercises with movement, such as plank step, windscreen wipers or mountain climbers

Another one to try? The Nordic hamstring exercise. According to a research review in a 2019 issue of the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which looked at nearly 8,500 athletes and strategies for injury prevention, this particular exercise cut hamstring injury incidence in half.

Lead researcher of that study, Ireland-based physiotherapist Nicol van Dyk, PhD, said that the move is simple and can be done anywhere, as long as your feet are secure and you can kneel comfortably.

Here's how to do the move:

  1. Begin in a kneeling position with both ankles secured—tuck your feet under a bar, for example, or have a running buddy hold them down.
  2. Then, lean forwards as slowly as possible while keeping your back straight, and your arms tucked in towards the body, usually with wrists crossed in front of your chest.
  3. When you can't resist any more, fall forward in a controlled manner, catching yourself with your hands against the floor or ground.

"Many factors play a role in your running performance, but the simple truth is that hamstrings are a huge part in how well you run", van Dyk said. "Spending a few minutes doing an exercise like this can reduce injury, and that's what a warm-up is all about".

Another option is to incorporate a foam roller into your warm-up. Research suggests that foam rolling can increase blood flow to the muscles, improve range of motion and may reduce inflammation. The trick with foam rolling is to do it before exercise in order to reap all of these benefits.

"Foam rolling can prepare the body for more high-intensity activity", said Diana Garrett, DPT, CSCS, outpatient rehabilitation supervisor at the Performance Therapy Center at Providence Saint John's Health Center. "This is true not just for your muscles but also for nerves and joints, since the increased blood flow affects them as well".

Adjust Your Warm-Up to Match the Run

The duration, intensity and type of exercises done in a warm-up often depend on what type of run or race you're going to do, Morris said. For example, if you're just running a mile on a track during your lunch hour, the warm-up can be five minutes of dynamic stretches, with moves such as lunges, squats and a couple of Nordic hamstring exercises, followed by five minutes of easy jogging before you speed up to your usual pace.

For speedwork, which involves building power through sprinting, it's better to prep your body with drills that involve some type of jumping, such as high knees, skipping, skaters and bum kicks.

Long run day or marathon? Morris said that's when your "easy pace jog" should be at least five minutes and accompanied by more dynamic stretches and a few minutes of vertical jumping. If you've run a long race before, you'll probably see plenty of other people doing those abrupt jumps as well, and Morris said those help with mental preparation as well as physical prep. That's because you literally shake out any jitters before you take your first step.

What To Do When You Have an Injury

Warming up is important in general, but it's even more essential when you have any kind of injury, said Joshua Scott, MD, a sports medicine doctor at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.

There are situations where you shouldn't be running at all, like if you have a stress fracture or experience sharp pain when you run, but there are some issues that may benefit from getting more exercise. Regardless, if you're feeling any abnormal discomfort, it's best to check with your doctor or physiotherapist.

(Related: Is It a Stress Fracture or Shin Splints? Here's What To Know)

For example, the Arthritis Foundation noted that running can reduce pain associated with knee osteoarthritis, and a 2018 study on traumatic brain injury found that aerobic exercises (like running) can boost mood in just a few weeks after injury. No matter what type of injury you have, once your doctor has cleared you to run, that's the time to focus on longer warm-ups, Scott suggested. In some cases, you can alternate between those moves and running. Though, if you have any hesitations about certain warm-ups, be sure to clear it with your doctor or physiotherapist before doing them.

For instance, if you use walking as a warm-up, Scott said doing walk-run sessions that involve brief bouts of running is the best approach. That way, you can get your body conditioned again without creating too much stress on the body. Also, it helps you progress back into running very gradually, which is ideal for anyone with or without an injury.

"Like with any exercise, listen to your body and pay attention to any new aches or pains", he said. "When you start running and you feel like you didn't warm up enough, you're probably right".

Words by Elizabeth Millard

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