The Warm-Up: What should you do?

Do you want the truth? I have no idea. No one really truly knows. That goes for just about anything unfortunately. There are no definitive answers; it’s not black and white. If anyone tells you that it is, be very wary.

Okay, so that doesn’t help anyone out too much. Let’s delve into the warm-up a little and see if we can make any sense of it at all.

The goal of the warm-up is simple in running, to prepare the body for the task at hand, running. That sounds simple enough, but the warm-up is all about balance because we have to do enough to prepare the body to get ready but we do not want to induce too much pre-fatigue. That last bit is important. If you look at the research studies done on warm-up, they are all over the place. About half say it helps, half say it doesn’t, and some say neither. Why is this? Because of that balance concept we have. Basically, a good warm-up to improve performance has to do three things:

Be intense enough to get physiological benefits (listed below)
NOT be too intense so that it induces pre-fatigue

Have an optimal recovery between the end of the warm-up and competition. (i.e. too long and benefits are lost, too short of a recovery and fatigue happens).

Let’s look at what a warm-up actually does.

1. Raises body temperature
In general, this is a good thing, unless your event is in a hot climate and is prolonged. But in other cases an increase in body temperature increases the rate of transmission of nerve impulses and changes the force-velocity relationship (Bishop 2003).

2. Raises baseline VO2
Depending on the warm-up and it’s spacing, it can raise baseline VO2. This can be a good thing, because then it means less time to reach VO2max or your race VO2. This in turn means that less energy created strictly anaerobically at the beginning of the race. The key is to get this baseline increase in VO2 while not pre-fatiguing yourself and allowing for enough recovery before the race of the immediate energy systems.

3. Increased Motor Unit activation
We need to activate those muscles. Get the CNS primed and ready to recruit everything it’s got. Research has shown that performance improvements following a warm-up have been partially due to an increase in muscle activation.

Individualizing the Warm-up

With just the simple guidelines of what a warm-up should do, it becomes clear that there is no perfect warm-up. In fact, even for the same individual, a warm-up should vary based on numerous factors. These factors include the following:

Race length:

The length of the race will determine the type and length of the warm-up. A marathon is partially dependent on glycogen stores, so does it make sense to use up a decent amount of your glycogen stores with a several mile warm-up before the race? Absolutely not. Similarly, with a sprint race, it is heavily dependent on the immediate energy systems, stored ATP and the phosphagen system. Given that we know it takes 3minutes or so to halfway restore Creatine Phosphate, and to fully recover it takes several more minutes, does it make sense to do a full lengthy acceleration to deplete this within 5-6min of the race? Nope! The lesson here is that your warm-up is dependent on the demands of your event.

This one is easy so I’ll glaze over it, but some people don’t adjust there warm-up for hot or cold conditions. In hot conditions, we know that your body starts decreasing motor unit recruitment and thus performance as your core temperature increases to levels where the body starts turning on the safety mechanisms. So why should we voluntarily raise our core body temperature by several degrees in very hot conditions? It’s just going to lead to early fatigue. Research has shown that precooling works in hot conditions. So why would we voluntarily do the opposite?

Individual Physiology:
The individual makeup of an athlete is going to help decide how he or she needs to warm-up. If you have a slow twitch kid and a fast twitch kid, they are going to need different stimulus. A FT runner is going to have a different reaction to that 2mi jog then a ST kid. Is it a big difference? Not necessarily, but it could play a role.

In addition, the type of runner he is plays a role. This is related to predominant fiber type, but if the runner is one who relies on elastic energy, he’s going to need to get ready differently than a shuffler. An elastic kid is going to need something that gets him primed, ready, and feeling snap in his stride. It’s why you see some runners jump up and down before they race. Fast strides, jumps, hops, etc. all either prime the nervous system or alter the muscle tone and muscle tension. For a FT kid, you normally want this pretty high. So, these runners hopping up and down intuitively are doing this. The body is amazing if you get out of its way and let it work.

How they feel:
As mentioned before, muscle tone/tension is very important. If a runner feels flat before a race then the warm-up serves to get the nervous system firing and increase muscle tension. Therefore, hops, jumps, or fast short accelerations may be required. On the other hand, if you have someone whose way too bouncy for a longer event, he’s probably going to be using energy sources that need to be spared. A different warm-up is thus appropriate.

With all this being said, what the heck is a good warm-up?

For you, I don’t know. But here are some good guidelines.

Time between warm-up and competition.
-Muscle temperature generally takes 15min or so to drop significantly after a warm-up.
-Creatine Phosphate takes about 5min to almost fully restore.
-VO2 returns to baseline after 5-10min depending on the intensity.
Advice: It depends on the race. I’d suggest your last really fast strides/accels be about 7-10min out from the race. Then some light exercise, jogging, and light strides to keep VO2 slightly elevated MIGHT be a good idea.

-Need to activate MUSCLES!
-There’s this nifty graph I was going to post but couldn’t that showed increasing performance following a warm-up at various intensities of VO2max. Basically, max performance occured following a warm-up at about 70%VO2 and more intense than that fell off pretty quick. So there was a sweet spot at between about 65-75% VO2 where performance was generaly the best.

Advice: Intense enough to raise muscle temperature, but not so intense that it fatigues you. Do some fairly intense strides/accels for muscle activation.

In the future I’ll look at structuring the warm-up, including the role of stretching and what it’s basis might be, and the use of drills in the warm-up

David Bishop Performance Changes Following Active Warm Up and How
to Structure the Warm Up Sports Med 2003; 33 (7): 483-498

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Anonymous on September 9, 2009 at 10:26 pm

      Thanks- great information. I have watched the Klein Oak kids and how well they are doing. I know you are to be commended for helping them. Great job and good luck with your studies and running.

    2. Anonymous on September 17, 2009 at 1:30 am

      Are you coaching a local DC area HS team or something? I only ask because I am a HS coach in the DC area and am always interested in running with or speaking with like-minded heads. Cheers and best of luck with your studies..

    3. stevemagness on September 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm

      Thanks for the comments.

      To answer the 2nd Anonymous poster, I'm going to grad school in the DC area (GMU), but I help out a group of HSers in TX. I'd love to talk training sometime. Best of luck to your team.

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