How to Warm Up

Warming up well before a race or a high-intensity interval session is important for several reasons.

Firstly, it can help reduce the risk of injury, and particularly muscle strains.

Secondly, if done properly, it can help to ‘prime’ your aerobic system, so that it responds faster at the start of your first high-intensity interval, or the beginning of your race.

This in turn means you need to rely less on your more limited ‘anaerobic’ energy system, and can improve performance.

In this regard, there are two components to a warm-up:

  1. Injury prevention
  2. Aerobic system priming

If you’re doing a long event (such as a half marathon or longer), where your intensity is likely to be overall low or moderate, then the priming of the aerobic system isn’t important.

However, for shorter races or for interval sessions, the aerobic system priming is really important.

Warming up for injury prevention

If the goal of your warm-up is just to prevent injury, then you can keep your warm-up relatively short e.g. between 5-10 minutes.

Start with a gentle jog at a Zone 1 effort, and then built this up to Zone 2 until you’re physically feeling warmer.

Then incorporate some dynamic stretches like leg swings (forwards and sideways), walking lunges, and knee-to-chest walks.

Priming the aerobic system

In order to prime your aerobic system, you need to warm up for a longer period of time. Ideally at least 15-20 minutes.

Again, you should start out with 5-10 mins of gentle running, starting at Zone 1 and building up to Zone 2.

Then incorporate 2x 2-mins at an 8/10 effort level, taking a couple of minutes to recover between each. You should be running at an intensity that lifts your heart rate to at least 80% of your Max HR, and you should be breathing hard; only able to speak a few words at a time at most.

Finally, wrap up your warm-up with another 5-10 mins of Zone 2 running. This segment is important, as it allows you to clear any lactate and associated fatiguing metabolites from your blood and muscle before the start of the race/intervals.

If you wish, you can also include some dynamic stretches as described above, before your 2x 2-min efforts, or after the warm up as a whole.

Best practices

  1. Warm up as close as possible to the start of your race or interval session.
  2. If the weather is cold, make sure you have some warm clothes on hand, so that you can retain body heat.
  3. Make sure you leave enough time for your warm-up. You may need as much as 60-90-mins before your race in order to sign on, sort your kit and warm up.

Written by Dr Emma Wilkins (physiology consultant and coach at High North Running)