We had another couple of successful performances at the Run Through Olympic Park 10K this weekend. Cam came first female in a time of 43:10 (yet another huge PB) and I got another age category win and 10K age-graded PB of 85.68%. We are both enjoying these shorter races and plan to keep them in our schedule.

In our last post, Cam mentioned the idea of a ‘pre-run run’, more commonly known as a warm-up. While not usually a huge issue for us as marathon runners, having started the New Year with a series of shorter races it is something that we are now having to pay more attention to.

So once again prior to this run we made some attempt at ‘warming up’, though our efforts were very different from each other’s. I plumped for a “running up and down a bit and doing silly walks” while Cam went out for a full blown 3K run at 41% tempo pace and 52% threshold and above (ie. for non-runners a very fast run which drew comments on Strava of “Double race day?” and “Punchy warm-up, Cam”).

When talking about it later, Cam acknowledged that the persistence and perseverance of others in trying to give her advice on how to run faster – which can often have the adverse effect (by which I mean giving advice to Cam) – had finally paid off, and that she was accepting that there might be something in some of what they have to say. (Just a bit though – let’s not go too far!)

Cam : So the ‘warm-up’ falls into this category of accepting new ideas – new year, new me and changing habits – and although I went into this race willing to engage with the idea, there was still a strong refusal to call it a ‘warm-up’. So instead I settled for another ‘pre-run run’, which turned out to be just that and not exactly what had been recommended.

That said I still maintain that it was hugely beneficial to the overall result of my run and maybe with a bit more knowledge I can tweak it to be even more useful and actually call it a warm-up.

Jacquie: Of course I know that we should warm-up, but it’s quite frankly a bit of a bother and it is hard to convince myself that it is actually making much difference; however, when I started reading about what is happening in the body during ‘warm-up’ both physiologically and neurologically then it all makes sense and, like equal pacing, why has it taken me so long to catch on?

But what exactly is it that should we be doing? I’ve read about the benefits of dynamic rather than static stretching and warming the muscles up gradually before high intensity exercise, but I realised that I wasn’t quite sure what exactly a warm-up should involve and when it should be done in relation to a run. For example, on Saturday mornings we would generally jog up to the start of Richmond parkrun – sometimes from home (6k), more often from the carpark (600m), as a sort of warm-up and then stand around chatting and waiting for 15-20 min. for the run to begin (often getting quite cold in the process). Was our pre-run jog at all useful? Likewise, in the past before the occasional 10k or half marathon, we would sometimes run about a bit – with me (Jacquie) in particular concerned about exerting myself too much before the race start. What should we be doing to get the balance right? We decide that it was time to do a bit more research.

We have called the post the ‘Art’ of warming-up because, as is so often the case, when you try to delve deeper into such matters you are confronted with a plethora of often conflicting information. As with most things in life, it seems that the answer to how to warm up effectively before a run/race is … it depends. It depends on a number of factors – some known, some unknown and some specific to the individual concerned.

Despite this, I have tried to pull together some of what I have learnt about warm-up into a plan of sorts which we will try to put into practice in future races.

The aim of the warm-up is to get the body and mind ready for the race ahead.

  • You need to bring your heart rate up, engage your muscles, move through a range of motion in your joints and send a message to the brain to prepare it for action.
  • Done well, this will enhance performance, help to avoid injury and possibly prevent post-race muscle soreness.

The warm-up involves:

  • Increasing muscle pliability – warm muscles contract and relax faster and require less energy to move due to improved nerve transmission and increased enzyme activity. Oxygen, necessary to ‘produce’ energy, is released more readily when the muscles are warmer.
  • Improving joint mobility – by increasing synovial fluid to protect joints and increasing tendon flexibility (apparently, as with muscles, warmed-up tendons need up to 25% less force to move them)
  • Raising heart rate and thereby blood flow to muscles, which in turn increases provision of oxygen and nutrients. Increased blood flow also makes the removal of waste products (water and carbon dioxide) more efficient.
  • Activation of neuromuscular connections – the brain regulates activity, and going through running movements helps to get muscles firing efficiently.

This needs to be done without:

  • Using precious carbohydrate stores.
  • Creating acidity in blood/muscles (lactic acid) which will adversely affect energy metabolism during the race and causes muscle fatigue.

And although this post has been called the ‘art’ of warm-up, there is clearly a lot of science to it as well. I’ve tried to write what I understand is going on because I find it helps.

There are three systems involved in releasing energy in the body. They all produce a molecule called ATP. The bonds in this molecule hold a lot of energy, and when they are broken energy is made available for the body to use.

System 1 : Phosphagen system : this uses ATP that is already sitting around in the muscle, and Creatine Phosphate that is also available, to produce enough ATP (energy) for short-burst intense activity – only enough for about 5-10 seconds.

System 2 : The Anaerobic system (in the absence of oxygen) : in this system, glucose (stored in the muscle as glycogen or circulating in the blood) is broken down relatively quickly because it does not need oxygen to be present; however as it does not involve oxygen this process is not efficient and can only produce enough energy for up to 5 mins activity, and in the process produces lactic acid as a by-product.

System 3 : The Aerobic system (in the presence of oxygen) – this system can release energy from different fuel sources: glucose (arriving at the muscle via the bloodstream from recent digestion of carbohydrates), fats (from stores in the body), and protein. It is more efficient in the amount of energy it releases and it can continue for much longer, but because it depends on sufficient oxygen getting to the muscles it is slower. Importantly it doesn’t release lactic acid. The release of energy from fats is more important in endurance runs. They are slower to break down than glucose because they require more oxygen – that’s why more fat burning goes on at slower paces. Bodily protein is generally only used as an energy source in starvation states and basically involves digesting muscle so is counter-effective.

In practice all three system are available to produce energy, but you want to avoid too much anaerobic breakdown of glucose during warm-up, as the lactic acid production causes muscle fatigue and adversely affects aerobic breakdown of fats later in the run. So warm-up should be mostly done at an easy pace which allows sufficient oxygen to get to the muscles.

Suggestions for warm-up for distances up to half marathon – the shorter the race, the longer the warm-up.

Most sources recommend a combination of :

  • Easy run (10min)
  • Dynamic stretches (leg swings, lunges, knee lifts etc.) Try to do some cross body stuff for right/left brain links and better co-ordination)
  • Strides – a confusing name for short (60-100m) accelerating runs eg. run 60m gradually increasing speed up to 5K pace and then decrease towards end. Shake legs out and repeat – maybe up to 6 times.

(These times/amounts are all very approximate – a case of trial and error for the individual as it depends on athletic ability, preparedness etc.)

Timing of warm-up

Finish (ideally) 2 min before race, but no more than 10 min – after 30 mins all advantage of activity is probably lost.

You need to consider environmental conditions.

  • In cold conditions, if you warm-up too much in advance then cool down before the race, this can actually be detrimental to performance.
  • In hot conditions you don’t want to raise your temperature too much leaving the body struggling to cool down. Again detrimental, because the brain is very sensitive to overheating and will not allow you to continue exercising and generating more heat.

Not sure if this helps anyone else – many runners will know what they should do to warm-up, even if they don’t fully understand why. I think understanding what’s behind it will encourage me to do the warm-up. I like the idea of having a set routine to follow as opposed to my rather random running about a bit before the race. And although Cam has been producing good results with her ‘punchy’ pre-run runs, she might find she has even more to give with a better-planned warm-up.

Next up is a 10 mile run in the Lee Valley Velopark. Let’s see how our new routines work out.