The 5 Best Running Warm Ups, and Why You Can’t Afford to Skip Them

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again: warming up before running is essential.

It’s tempting to just dive straight into a run, but doing so time and time again can be surprisingly detrimental to your body and performance.

As you likely already know, running is a high-volume, high-force sport — your body has to endure lots of loading and impact forces at a highly repetitive rate. So, just a few minutes of light exercise to prepare your body can make the world of a difference for your running success and longevity.

Let’s dive into the science behind why warmups matter and how you can implement them to better your own training.

Why is Warming Up Important?

In order to effectively mitigate the forces of running, your body has to be well-prepared to handle the rigors of your workouts. This means that your tissues and physiological processes have to be “woken up” prior to your actual activity so you get the most out of your training.

If you don’t give your body enough time to do so, your tissues won’t be pliable enough to sufficiently manage the forces of running, increasing your risk of injury and limiting your overall performance. (In some cases, if you go too hard right at the start, your body won’t even have time to respond and adapt to your exercise.)

Benefits of Warming Up

One of the biggest benefits of warming up is increased heart rate and blood flow. Your blood provides nutrients that are essential for effective muscle contraction, and your warmups help get your heart pumping to stimulate that initial blood flow and maintain that nutrient supply throughout your activity.

In turn, this will improve the pliability in your muscles and tendons, allowing the tissues to stretch and elongate more easily to match the demands of your exercise. Retaining pliable tissues is key for sufficient muscle contraction, shock absorption, stability, joint mobility, and range of motion — you name it.

Warming up also gives your body time to respond to physical activity before you go all in. By starting with low intensity exercise, your aerobic system has plenty of time to transport oxygen to your muscles, which is another vital component for proper muscle contraction. You can effectively get the ball rolling on that consistent oxygen supply to help fuel your running.

There’s also the benefit of increased body and muscle temperature. When your muscles are lower in temperature, like when you first get out of bed in the morning, they’re much stiffer and less capable of producing as much force. But as your systems start to (quite literally) warm up, your muscles’ metabolic activity increases, and they’re able to efficiently consume nutrients for muscle contraction and improved force output.

Plus, with a proper warmup, you can incorporate exercises that boost your neuromuscular functionality. The nerves in your brain send signals to contract your muscles, and the more you utilize that brain-to-muscle connection, the faster it works. With just a few minutes of running-specific drills, you prime that neuromuscular pathway for your next few miles of activity.

You may have noticed that each of these benefits contribute to improved muscular contraction. And ultimately, that’s what you want to achieve with your warmups: physiological and neurological preparation in the muscles. You’ll have better reaction times, increased endurance, a reduced risk of injury, and faster and more powerful movements altogether.

Elements of a Good Warmup

First and foremost: a good warmup is distinctly separate from your running workout.

If you’re thinking that you can just ease into your run by keeping it “light and breezy,” it’s time to reevaluate your routine! Sure, you may physically be able to run without a warmup, but if you skip it, your body will probably need about 0.5 to 1 mile to wake up and match the dynamism of your running.

And while you technically can do that, it doesn’t mean you should.

You’d only be putting yourself at a disadvantage — running with stiff muscles increases your risk of strain or injury, and you ultimately won’t be able to maximize your running training.

So, in order to make the most of your designated warmups, set aside around 6-8 minutes before hitting the trails. (It truly doesn’t take much time to make a big impact on your running longevity and injury prevention.)

Focus on basic activities, like dynamic stretches to get your muscles moving and some light aerobic work to get your heart pumping just enough. You’ll know you’re doing it right when you start to feel your body and muscles getting warmer.

Just like every other facet of running training, make your warmup as deliberate as possible to get the most out of it. Choose exercises that target the same muscle groups, prompt similar biomechanics, and get your physiological systems up and running while keeping it gentler than the repeated impact of running.

If you need a place to get started, keep on reading! We hand-picked some of our favorite warmups and explained why they’re good before a run (plus, how to do them correctly).

The 5 Best Warmups before Your Runs

Most dynamic movement drills will suffice before a workout, but like we said — if you want to make the most out of it, choose exercises that target joints and muscle groups that are essential in running.

For instance, activation is a key component. Drills that target glute activation are especially beneficial, as they’ll prime your muscles for power generation and shock absorption before you’re in the thick of your workout.

So without further ado: your running warmups!

#1: Standing Fire Hydrants (Dynamic)

  1. Standing on one leg, drop into a hip hinge and squat position.
  2. Keep your pelvis level as you balance on your stance leg. Focus on staying as stable as possible, not leaning one way or the other.
  3. Lift your other leg up and out behind you, moving into extension and external rotation at the hip.
  4. Move your lifted leg in and out of the starting position.
  5. If practicing with a resistance band, make sure both of your knees are pushing out against the band. This will prevent your stance leg knee from caving in, and encourage your lifted leg to achieve a greater degree of extension.

Benefits: targeted glute activation, achieving sufficient hip and knee flexion; close to mimicking single-leg running mechanics.

#2: Pizza Cutters

  1. Start in a standing position with a resistance band just above the knees.
  2. Quickly drop into a “runner’s pose” or hip-dominant squat. (You can almost think of it as a rapid, dynamic lunge.) Keep your movement as quick as possible.
  3. Focus on spreading the band with both knees as you descend. Similar to the fire hydrant, this will ensure that the knee of your stance leg does not cave inwards or compensate as you bear weight.

Benefits: priming muscles for shock absorption, honing lower extremity alignment.

#3: Banded Lateral Walks

  1. Place a resistance band just above your kneecaps and sit into a hip-dominant squat position. That means hip hinge and spreading the floor!
  2. Move to the side, taking one step at a time. Use your knee to control the movement (that is, don’t let your foot take the lead as you step out).
  3. Keep your feet pointed straight forward.
  4. Push out against the band with both your knees to retain ample tension.

Benefits: targeted glute activation (specifically the gluteus medius).

#4: Dynamic Heel Raises

  1. Find a fence, wall, or other sturdy structure as a source of support. Place your hands on said structure with your feet slightly apart.
  2. Perform rapid, consecutive heel raises. Keep this movement as quick as possible, creating a bouncy motion.
  3. Keep your legs relatively straight; you don’t have to lock your knees, but do your best to limit knee bend as you move up and down.

Benefits: building tensile strength in the calves, loading the Achilles tendon, increasing blood flow to both tissues.

#5: Leg Swings (Forward & Lateral)

  1. Stand on one leg and bring the other leg through its natural range of motion.
  2. Use a combination of active motion and natural momentum to fluidly swing your leg back and forth.
  3. Focus on keeping your upper body as still as possible. This will ensure that your leg is solely moving through the range of motion at the hip, rather than recruiting your back or core muscles to do the moving.
  4. Practice these leg swings in both forward and lateral movement patterns.

Benefits: improving hip mobility, achieving dynamic stretch in the hamstrings and hip flexors (forward) and the groin and gluteal muscles (lateral).

Time to Warm Up!

Remember, runners — just those few minutes before your workout can make the world of a difference!

By designating specific drills to wake up your muscles and ease your body into movement, you can save yourself a lot of heartache (and literal pain) down the line.

And with enough deliberate exercise, too, you have more opportunity to improve the components of your running form, whether it’s muscular activation, joint mobility, or leg alignment.

So, we’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: don’t skimp out on your warmups! Give your body the time and attention it needs before each run, and it’ll pay off handsomely in the longevity of your running health.

By Dr. Kevin Vandi DPT OCS CSCS

Dr. Vandi is the founder of Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy — with his background in physical therapy, orthopedics, and biomechanics, he is a highly educated, compassionate specialist. Using state-of-the-art motion analysis technology and data-driven methodologies, Kevin has assisted a wide range of clients, from post-surgery patients to youth and professional athletes. When he isn’t busy working or reading research, he spends his time with his wife Chrissy and their five wonderful children, often enjoying the outdoors and staying committed to an active lifestyle.

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