What Makes a Good Running Warm-Up?

Here are the running warm-up essentials you can use to build your own routine before your next run. 

Photo: GettyImages

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What does your running warm-up look like? Is it simply walking, doing a few jumping jacks, stretching, or maybe some ab work? Or, you might be the type to hit snooze on your alarm until there’s no time to warm up at all.

If any of the above sound like you, rest assured you’re like most runners. Many runners minimize the importance of warming up because it’s hard to see the benefits — or they simply don’t have a go-to warm-up routine that they enjoy. 

Let’s take a moment to share the importance of squeezing in a running warm-up, and the essentials that you can use before your next run. 

Why Bother With a Running Warm-Up? 

There are plenty of reasons to prioritize warming up. Here are a few of the most important ones:

1. It Increases Circulation

Your heart, blood vessels, and lungs determine how efficiently oxygen gets to your working muscles. Gradually increasing your heart rate increases this efficiency versus jumping right in, meaning you’ll have more stamina without feeling as fatigued or winded throughout your fun. 

2. It Decreases Muscle and Fascia Resistance

Ever try pulling on taffy that has been in the freezer? Snap! It is brittle, and it breaks before it stretches. Your muscles and fascia are the same way. Warming them up gradually decreases their resistance. This increases your ease of movement, and lowers your risk of tearing or straining muscles, ligaments, tendons and fascia. 

3. Getting Warm Increases Nerve Firing

Muscles cannot act on their own — instead, nerves tell them what to do, and we’ve all experienced nerves misfiring at one point or antother. The most common example is a muscle twitch, or pulsing sensation. When a nerve misfires while running, it can feel like a cramp, like a muscle locked up, or like a stitch in your side.

Whatever signal you experience, it is unpleasant, and it cuts your run short as you rest and recover from it. Help prevent this by warming up.

4. You’ll Be More Psychologically Prepared

Have you ever noticed that runs are easier on days when you feel like you can get “into the zone”? Warming up teaches the brain to get into the zone faster, which allows you to push through with greater ease. 

What Makes a Good Warm-Up? 

Good warm-ups meet all the elements in this checklist:

  • They’re 5 to 10 minutes long. Aim for 10 to 15 minutes if you are in extremely cold or hot environments. 
  • The intensity is a 3 to 5 on a scale of 1 to 10
  • You remain mostly upright, as opposed to lying on the floor and doing ab work.
  • You stay in motion the whole time.
  • Start with small, simple movements, then increase complexity and coordination.
  • It includes all major joints and muscles.
  • It includes all directions: forward/backward, sideways, and rotation.
  • You start slow and gradually increase the speed of each movement.

Follow-Along Warm-Up:

Do each exercise 10-20 times, depending on how long you want your warm-up routine to be. Start slow, then gradually increase the speed (while still keeping the movement well-controlled) of each movement. 

  1. Tilt your head from side to side
  2. Rotate your head from side to side
  3. Circle your shoulders back
  4. Do elbow circles by placing your fingertips on your shoulders and drawing circles through the air with your elbows
  5. Do big arm circles forward, then backward
  6. Alternate calf raising and toe raising
  7. Hug each knee to your chest
  8. Kick each foot toward your buttocks
  9. Twist your torso side to side, allowing your trailing leg to rotate to follow the motion
  10. Air squats
  11. Plie squats
  12. Walking lunges forward
  13. Walking lunges backward (if your safe is space to do so)
  14. Zombie walks (like a kick to the front that stretches your hamstrings)
  15. Side shuffles
  16. Grapevine (aka Carioca)
  17. Power skipping

Have a favorite move we left out? Feel free to sub it in, or add it in!

Next Steps

Don’t just follow this advice, feel it! Try this comprehensive warm-up before your next run and open your senses to how your body feels during, after, and even the next day. Then, do your own experiment! On the next run, go back to your old warm-up routine (or lack of a warm-up). Compare your workout on the day you warmed up versus the day that you didn’t. What did you find?

Finally, before you go, take a moment to save this warm up so you can refer to it each day.