Why Warm Up? Benefits and Example Exercises

warm up exercises
Fitness trainer Lin Skinner explains the benefits of warming up before running, and gives some practical examples of exercises with video demos…


It is very rare to come across a runner who actively schedules in time for their pre-run warm up. For most of us, the freedom of just being able to go out of your door and run is one of the things that we love about our sport.

However, many of us would hugely benefit from warming up, and I don’t just mean taking it a bit easy for the first mile or so (although that is better than nothing). I mean thinking about “preparing our bodies for exercise.”

Why warm up?

On a basic level, the warm up prepares the body (and the mind) for exercise. It does this by slowly and safely raising the heart rate, mobilising the joints and using dynamic stretches/drills to lengthen the muscles ready for exercise.

Most importantly, warming up properly can prevent injury during a session. This is particularly relevant for track or speed sessions, but can also help in long runs and tempo runs if we will be on the threshold of what we can achieve either with distance, time or speed.

A specific warm up will also set neuromuscular response patterns. For runners this means that if you are working on a particular element of your technique during a session, you can set that up in the warm up with targeted drills.

What does a warm up do?

A good warm up has three key objectives, as well as being specific to the sport you are preparing for.

1. The first objective is to raise your heart rate slowly by moving (running slowly for example), generally called a “pulse raiser”. Usually the pulse raiser will also assist with some of the other principles, and the exercises should be of a low to moderate intensity, say 40-60% of maximum heart rate. It should be continuous and gradually increase in intensity.

2. The second key objective is to mobilise the joints ready for exercise. Aside from injury prevention the other reason for this is to increase the body’s range of movement. For example for runners this could mean drills designed to increase your cadence, or raise your knees, or encourage a full backswing on your arms.

3. Lastly (and your body already needs to be a bit warm to do this effectively), it should prepare the major muscle groups for use in your main session. Preparatory stretches lengthen the muscles ready for the work ahead and increase the body’s range of movement. Dynamic stretches are best, with 10-12 repetitions of controlled full range stretches ideally replicating some of the movements to be used in the session.

Best types of warm up for runners?

The best type of warm up will depend on what you are warming up for. As a general rule the higher the intensity of the session, the more time you should spend on the warm up. Therefore a hard track or hills session requires a well planned warm up of about 20 minutes, but a long run at lower intensity may only need 8-10 minutes of a slower pace run and some light stretching/mobilisation.

For runners, the ideal pulse raiser is a slow jog, which raises the heart rate slowly and safely while also preparing the body for the exercise ahead by performing the movements involved in running. It is a good time to think about technique and any areas of focus that will be covered in the main session.

Drills

Drills are ideal both for joint mobilization and preparatory stretches. Here are some examples of drills and what they do:

  • Back kicks: jogging while trying to get your heel as high as possible on the back swing. This helps with your stride by improving flexibility in the hip flexor and encourages a high cadence.
  • High knees: jogging while raising your knees as high as possible in the front. This also encourages a high cadence while improving hamstring flexibility.
  • Skipping/bounding (height/length): explosive skipping where you jump either as high or as far as you can. Improves coordination and flexibility while adding an explosive element to the warm up, and activates glutes ready for the session.
  • Walking on heels/toes: this warms up your whole foot and lower leg muscles.
  • Side stepping: this targets abductors and adductors, making sure that both the hip joint and those muscles are fully warmed up and ready.

Dynamic stretches

Here are three key dynamic stretches, that work well for runners:

1. Walking lunges: Moving forwards by stepping one leg and then the other into a lunge, keeping the exercise controlled and stretching as you move forwards. 10-12 on each leg. (See video demo – no sound.)

2. Squats to either side: Stepping out with one leg and into a squat, then back to centre. Repeat with the other leg. 10-12 on each side. (See video demo – no sound.)

3. Walking leg rotation (opening and closing the gate!): This is my favourite warm up – it really stretches all the muscles around the hips and mobilises that joint ready for exercise. Walking forwards – as you lift your leg, raise it high in front with bent knee and rotate from inside to out (repeat inside out with both legs first). Then on your way back do the same but rotate from outside to in. Again 10-12 on each leg. (See video demos – no sound.)

A final thought

Warming up properly is not complicated, and the benefits are numerous.

Try it for yourself at your next parkrun. Leave the house a bit early and do a good length warm up jog and a few drills and dynamic stretches. At best you might get a PB and at worst your legs will be less stiff later in the day!

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