How to not waste your warm-up

If you look around at a 5k or 10k road race, you’re probably pretty confused about how you’re supposed to warm-up. Some runners will do some light jogging. Others will add some drills or strides. A few will literally just sit around until the start — afraid of wasting their energy before the race.


Some of these approaches are better than others, but the vast majority of runners I see at road races are wasting their warm-up (and, let me say, I’m referring to 10k races and shorter here) because of some really simple mistakes. The good news is that the solutions are simple, too!


First, let’s generally go over what a warm-up should accomplish:


  • Large amounts of blood (and oxygen) being delivered to the leg muscles
  • Muscles are physically warm so they can operate efficiently
  • The central nervous system is aroused
  • The runner feels loose throughout their entire range of motion


As promised, we’re going to keep this simple and just focus on the first two — getting the muscles warm and getting large amounts of blood flowing to the legs.


This can be achieved through a 15-20 minute jog.


Easy, right?


Ok, well, let’s look at a couple ways people go wrong here:


PROBLEM: The early bird warm-up
This is THE most common mistake I see people make in their warm-ups. They start jogging an hour or so before the race, and when they finish they stand around and stretch for 45 min before heading to the start line. By that time, most (like almost all) of the benefit from your jog is gone.


There are two simple ways to attack this problem:


1) If you really need to start a full hour before the race because you’re worried about having time to go to the bathroom, stretch, etc. you can try adding a 3-5 minute “up-tempo” run to your routine. This should be faster than your warm-up jog, but slower than race pace. You can think of it as marathon pace or the pace you would run on a day you’re feeling good. Doing this up-tempo run 10-15 minutes before the start of the race will get your heart rate elevated again, get the blood flowing, and get the muscles warm. And, no, it won’t waste energy that you need for the 5k/10k race.


2) But the simplest solution is just to warm-up closer to the race. (Genius, right?) When I talk to runners about their race warm-ups, I try to get them thinking about what they do before a workout. Rarely do they start warming-up a full hour before they start running. And if a warm-up is good enough for a tough workout, shouldn’t it be good enough for a race?


Which brings me to a second common mistake …


PROBLEM: Race day roulette
Most runners are creatures of habit. But for some reason, races tend to get us thinking too much. We start to do different warm-ups, new drills, different food, all kinds of new preparation for a race that we’ve never tried in a workout. Variety may be the spice of life, but it’s a bad way to get your body ready to run!


SOLUTION: If something is vital to your warm-up, you should be doing it before your workouts as well as your races. If something isn’t important, then take it out of your routine completely — why waste the time? I like to recommend using the same warm-up routine before races that you do before workouts. That way your body is in a normal rhythm. And it provides a nice, calming way to remind yourself that you’ve trained and are ready for this.


Like I said, this is simple advice — but better to do a simple routine right than do a complex routine wrong. So no matter what else you add to your warm-up routine (and don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT that can add benefit!), make sure to avoid these problems and you’ll guarantee that you don’t waste the warm-up before your next race!