Runners are often guilty of skipping the warm-up, and heading straight into a full on run. But doing that is like attempting to start a manual car in third gear – it might just manage it, but the performance will be inefficient, difficult and potentially damaging.
The runner's warm-up raises body temperature, increases heart rate and mobilises the joints. Furthermore, a warm-up diverts blood away from the internal organs to supply the muscles with the oxygen they require to function efficiently.
An increase in body temperature helps promote the flow of synovial fluid, which is a liquid that surrounds and cushions joint surfaces to reduce friction. Also, synovial fluid makes muscles more pliable and less prone to straining or tearing.
So how should you carry out a warm-up?
Even though running is predominantly a lower-body activity, this does not mean you want to focus purely on a lower body warm-up. Mobilize all the major joints of the body including the neck, shoulders, waist, hips, knees and ankles with a series of gentle, controlled circling, bending and extending.
Even though running is predominantly a lower-body activity, this does not mean you want to focus purely on a lower body warm-up.
Then, take a walk, gradually increasing your speed and range of movement to break into a slow jog. You should feel slightly warm and breathless as you do this.
Next comes the running-specific moves – to enhance ‘neuromuscular coordination’ so that your running efficiency is maximised and the amount of energy you 'spend' at any given effort level is minimized.
Use hamstring swings to put the hip through a full range of movement with no impact, and warm up the hamstrings. Stand side on to a support and with your knee bent, lift leg to hip height, and swing it up, down and back in a circular motion, the leg almost fully extended at the end of the back swing. Do 10-20 on each leg, increasing the range and speed with each one but maintaining control throughout.
As well as improving coordination, reverse walking (yes, walking backwards) activates the gluteal muscles, which are important in stabilising the pelvis during running. With each step, take the foot across the midline of the body (in other words, slightly across the front foot). Try four to six steps, and repeat eight times.
Prone kicks are a must if you suffer with knee problems.
And finally, prone kicks are a must if you suffer with knee problems. These put your knee joints through a full range of motion without the impact of running – helping to get the synovial fluid moving, protecting and feeding the joint cartilage. Lie face down with your forehead resting on your folded arms and your stomach gently pulled in. Bring one foot up towards your rear and then take it back to the floor, simultaneously bringing the other foot up to your rear. Start slowly and gradually speed up, kicking for one to two minutes or counting 120 kicks. Don't allow the pelvis to ‘rock’ from side to side.
Finish off with a few ‘strides’. These are short runs of about 25m in which you accelerate from a slow start to a brisk pace. Then you should be primed and ready to go.
Should you stretch before you run?
In a runner's warm-up should you stretch before a run? This is still a topic of much debate. Studies looking at the inclusion of stretching in a warm-up have not found that it offers any additional injury-prevention benefits over and above a standard warm-up or that it aids performance.
However, if you feel particularly tight or tense in any specific joint or muscle, it is recommend that you follow the general warm-up with stretches to loosen up that area. One thing to bear in mind, never stretch cold muscles. Make sure you do the warm-up first.