How to Properly Warm-up for a Race

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I recently decided that I was going to enter a few “shorter” races just for fun.  Over the last several years I have been more focused on marathon running with the occasional half-marathon thrown in.  Next week I am doing the Sage Rat Run 12K in Grandview, WA followed by the Memorial Freedom 5K in Bristol, TN on Memorial Day weekend.

For me these shorter races are pretty tough since marathon training does not equip you well for what seems like a 3.1 mile sprint.  Optimum performance at shorter distances such as 5 and 10Ks requires a bit different type of training than half and full marathons.  The same is true about the type of warm-up you do for these different race types which brings up the question – what is the optimum way to get your body warmed-up for a race?

The answer to that question is actually pretty interesting and intuitively makes sense.

Most Important Factors for Race Performance   

There are two key elements to ensure quality performance in whatever distance of race you are running – the availability of both energy and oxygen.

Depending on the distance of the race either energy or oxygen availability might be the limiting factor.  For example, if you are running a 5K race you are not going to run out of energy but the amount of oxygen your body needs to sustain the level of intensity required is a big concern.

The opposite is typically true for a marathon where your energy stores in the form of the body’s glycogen supply is essential to complete the distance but the pace is much less intense so oxygen debt, particularly early, is not as limiting of a concern.

Why Do You Need to Warm-up for a Race?

Have you ever been in a resting condition and then started running at a hard pace without a warm-up?  I know I have and the result can severely hinder your performance in a race.  What happens is you basically shock your system as it takes a while for your body to adjust and start delivering oxygen to your muscles at its maximum rate.  It takes time for the blood flow to your muscles to increase, and for the enzymes that extract oxygen from the blood and oxidize fuel to ramp up their activity levels.  Basically, it is not dissimilar to trying to get your lawn mower moving without choking it and letting it warm-up first.

While your body is ramping its systems up, the demand for oxygen by your muscles is still at a level that is directly proportional to running intensity.  Oxygen is pumped to your arms and legs to keep you moving.  There will be a point when you are physically taking in less oxygen than is necessary to sustain your efforts.  This can cause you to slow your efforts but before you get to that point your body releases lactic acid into your muscles to sustain you.  Yes, that same lactic acid that receives a bad rap for muscle fatigue, muscle soreness, etc.  Without a proper warm-up lactic acid buildup can be quite severe early on.

Considering all of this, the important takeaway is that the harder the race intensity, the more important it is to ensure that your body’s ability of deliver oxygen is maximized from the very beginning.  Put more directly, the shorter the race the more important it is for you to warm up well.

Ok…Then How Do You Warm-up for a Race?

Most people warm-up for a race by doing some light jogging, stretching, and perhaps a few short sprints.  Depending on the distance of the race and/or your race goals this may be perfectly adequate.

If you are planning to “race hard” at a short distance such as a 5K, this is probably not going to cut it.  Your goal is to have your heart and respiratory rates primed and ready when the gun goes off and means that these levels should be well above resting levels.

This can be achieved having a short, hard effort during your warm-up which is above your lactate threshold (i.e., intensity at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the blood stream) but below your VO2 max pace (i.e., intensity at which your maximum capacity to transport and use oxygen is reached).

This will dramatically improve how quickly your body can process oxygen once the race starts.  After warming up in this manner your body can remain in this “primed” condition for around 30-45 minutes.  Of course if you push it too hard during the warm-up you risk depleting some of your energy stores and causing waste products to build in your muscle so there is a balance with respect to time and intensity.

Warm-up for a 5K

For competitive runners who are racing hard or trying to hit a personal best, the goal is to be fully “primed” when the gun sounds.  You want your blood circulating as much oxygen as possible as fast as possible in order to replace immediately what is used as your muscles spring to life.  As such, the time it takes your cardiac and respiratory systems to match your loads is minimized.

A 5K is only 3.1 miles you are not going to run out of energy in the form of glycogen during the race so a longer warm-up is prudent.

Here you should start with an approximately 1.5-2 easy jog followed a sustained burst at 10K pace for approximately 4 minutes.  You should aim to finish this portion of your warm-up around 20-25 minutes before race time during which you can stretch, hit the port-o-potty and get your racing flats on.

Once you are over at the starting line, a few strides (4 to 6 strides of 40-80 meters) make sense but lets be realistic, in a lot of these races it is not practical to do so.  In these cases, the important part is to keep your heart and respiratory rate up so jogging in place or jumping up and down, while possibly looking silly, is about your best option.

Warm-up for a 10K

The warm-up for a 10K is not dissimilar to that of the 5K except the time and intensity is modified just a bit.  A 10K is a bit longer than a 5K but your body has enough glycogen stored in your liver and muscles to maintain your energy levels for more than 10 miles before you have to be concerned about “bonking” or “hitting the wall.”

For the 10K one should start with an approximately 1-1.5 mile easy jog followed by a sustain burst at 10K pace for approximately 2 minutes.

Warm-up for a Half Marathon

When we enter the territory of the half marathon we are now starting to worry less about getting the primed for peak performance at the onset and more about maintaining energy stores at peak levels.  As such, the warm-up for a half marathon is different from the 5K or 10K.

For a half marathon it is important to just get the muscles to wake up and can be achieved with an approximately 1 mile run with a couple of short pickups (race pace for 20-50 or meters) towards the latter part of that mile.

A half marathon is 13.1 miles so you are not going to be super intense from the beginning and you have some time in the first few miles to reach your peak system performance levels.

Warm-up for a Full Marathon

Let’s face it 26.2 miles is a long way.  There is not a lot of sense in adding too much to the amount of running you are already in for.  You need to conserve your energy and minimize your warm-up time.  A little light running in advance of getting to the starting area is perfectly sufficient.  For me this consists of a light jog anywhere between 0.5 and 1 mile.

3 thoughts on “How to Properly Warm-up for a Race”

  1. Hey Stephen – great post on warming up for different distances! I actually don’t think I’ve ever warmed up for a full mile before a half marathon. Do you really think that long of a warm-up is needed? And also, what sort of pace would you recommend? I’m running a half-marathon this weekend, so I’m curious 🙂

    • Thanks Spencer. You know for all of the half marathons that I have done I have warmed up more or less right at a mile. The pace I usually do is fairly slow so on the order of 2.5 to 3 minutes slower than race pace. Something to get the legs moving and the blood flowing. I usually will do this and perhaps at the end do a few short accelerations just to get the heart rate elevated some and the legs a feel for what “race pace” feels like. In reality the warm-up is certainly more important in the shorter races but even in a half, the first mile feel a whole lot easier and you will feel a whole lot less sluggish if you get things flowing well. Of course I usually run my first mile at little faster than some so it has been helpful for me.

      • Great tips. I’m going to apply this to my race in a couple of days. A nice slow mile, with a few short accelerations near race pace. Thanks!

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