Warm-up for Running

A post about ‘warming-up’ seemed fitting given that we are soon to be in the depths of winter. I’m afraid its not just a case of eating a few extra mince pies this christmas to ensure a bit of extra insulation into the new year! Decent warm-up is particularly important in the colder months and bad weather makes quality training a priority over quantity. You don’t want to do any more training than you need to, or rather you want to get maximum bang for your training buck. Here I’ll provide a brief summary of some relevant warm-up research and guidelines of how to implement this into your winter training sessions.

To stretch or not to stretch

There are 2 main types of stretching described in the literature- static and active or ‘dynamic’.

Static stretches

A static Hamstring stretch

The image below shows a popular dynamic stretch for the hamstrings. To perform a static stretch we place the muscle in an elongated position and hold this for a period of time. Runners usually perform a static calf stretch by placing one leg behind the other in a lunge position and leaning against a wall.

Dynamic stretches

These use movement and momentum to move the muscle throughout its entire range. They should be performed in a slow and controlled manner. Dynamic stretches have been popular with team sports players for a number of  years and you’ll see professional footballers doing these before a match. Dynamic stretching can be made sport-specific.

So what does the research literature tell us about stretching and warming-up?

Warm-up & performance

Static stretching before sports including running was once common-place. However, a great deal of research has demonstrated that static stretching can reduce strength, power and performance- and the message has gradually fed down to grass-roots runners. A recent meta-analysis (a review of all or most of the research on a given subject) by Simic et al (2012) looked at 104 studies on the subject of pre exercise static stretching and concluded that:

the use of static stretching as the sole activity during warm-up routine should generally be avoided

However, it’s worth noting here that the loss of strength and performance measures was related to the duration of the stretch, and smaller changes were seen with stretches held for less than 45 seconds. The overall reductions seen were relatively small. Also, the fact that decreased strength or tone may actually be advantageous in certain situations or for certain muscle groups has not been considered. I will often recommend hip flexor stretches during technique analysis sessions and find that these have an almost immediate effect on improving pelvic alignment and overall technique in runners who have overactive hip flexors (common in people who drive or sit for long periods).

The use of dynamic stretching has also faced recent scrutiny. A review by Behm et al (2011) stated that:

Dynamic stretching has been shown to either have no effect or may augment subsequent performance, especially if the duration of the dynamic stretching is prolonged

So, doing large amounts of dynamic stretching isn’t recommended either. In terms of how best to use dynamic stretches they concluded:

Generally, a warm-up to minimize impairments and enhance performance should be composed of a submaximal intensity aerobic activity followed by large amplitude dynamic stretching and then completed with sport-specific dynamic activities

Sport-Specific dynamic activities for runners could include drills and short efforts of faster running. 


Warm-up & injury prevention 

Can warming-up prevent injury?

The most common reason given for performing a warm-up is not actually to improve performance, but rather to prevent injury. However, is there are actually any evidence that warm-up does this?

 McHugh et al (2010) studied the role of pre-participation stretching in injury prevention and concluded that:

 …a limited number of studies of varying quality have shown mixed results

A previous review by Fradkin et al (2005) was similarly vague in it’s conclusion:

There is insufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine warm-up prior to physical activity to prevent injury among sports participants. However, the weight of evidence is in favour of a decreased risk of injury

So the role of stretching in injury prevention is inconclusive, this doesn’t mean it is of no use, but just that evidence is inconclusive. I must point out here that the vast majority of injury prevention research is currently inconclusive- possibly because we are looking at the wrong things, or maybe just because so many factors contribute to injury risk including biomechanical, neurological, technique, training practices, the environment, training surfaces, equipment, general health and immune status, recovery status etc etc. The list is endless and likely varies from one situation to the next. Quality prospective studies looking at risk factors are generally lacking.

What the research tells us- take home messages for warming-up

It appears sensible to do some dynamic stretches and low intensity aerobic activity (i.e. easy running) prior to your training session. The research on how long to do this for is inconclusive- so its probably best to make sure that you feel ‘warm and ready to do the planned session’- this may be more or less time depending on the weather, your level of fatigue and the session you are about to complete.

Static stretching should probably be saved for between sessions, rather than as part of a warm-up routine before we run. However, shorter duration stretches will probably not be detrimental and statically stretching certain muscle groups (eg the hip flexors) could actually be advantageous.

Implementation– what I do

So what do I recommend for my runners at this time of year? Firstly, it’s a good idea to refine your warm-up based on the training session you are going to do. Generally a longer, more focussed warm-up should be used before shorter, higher-intensity sessions.  I always encourage runners to incorporate drills into their warm-ups to encourage efficient technique. Choose 2 or 3 that are specific to you and your running needs.

An example warm-up for a moderate-to-high intensity workout:

          1/2 mile- 1 mile easy jog (make sure you feel warm)

3-5 mins dynamic stretching

3 different running drills (specific to your technique weaknesses) with brief (100-200m) jog, increasing to moderate-sprint, between each.

Follow up with 3 x100m. @ 70%, 80%, and 100%. Recover completely and begin workout.

Meanwhile, for long slow distance sessions warm-up can be shorter, and can even be incorporated into the run itself. I recommend starting of a little slower than usual- wear enough layers that you can do this comfortably and don’t feel the urge to start off fast to warm-up! Once you are feeling warm (usually around a mile into the run) take excess layers off and incorporate some drills, but try to keep moving to avoid cooling down.

Warming-up adequately will help you to feel psychologically prepared and focussed, and more comfortable running in cold weather . If you’re cold you’ll be tense and distracted. Make sure you enjoy your running despite the cold weather and remember, more than any other time of year, the quality of your training is more important than the quantity. Winter is a great time to hit the gym and work on strength and also an excellent time to work on technique.

Remember there’s no such thing as bad weather,  just bad clothing… and bad warm-ups!


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