Why Your Running Warm Up Does Not Matter

Runners get told they need to do so many things before training it’s unbelievable. Whether it’s by their coaches, training buddies or health care providers they often develop a laundry list of things they have to do.

Go through your full-body foam rolling routine loosening up all the tight spots. Nail your specific activation drills. Reset your pelvis so your legs are now the same length. Now go through your big dynamic warm-up. 90 minutes later your body has been completely optimized for your 45-minute run or lift.

The truth is, most of the stuff we do before we run is not founded in any kind of science aside from gradually increasing your heart rate, increasing your blood flow, and generally easing your whole body into the session. Runners can get VERY fixated on this stuff. They have to do A, B, and C prior to their session or they are guaranteed to get hurt or waste the workout.

The goal of this blog is not to discredit any of the things previously listed, I did that in a post three years ago HERE, but instead to offer a different approach to how to prepare for your next training session. The specifics of it don’t matter as much as we’d like to think.

I haven’t given a patient or client a foam rolling routine, activation exercise or stretching regimen in years largely because the time spent doing that I feel could be better invested in something else. The truth is whether you have developed a consistent practice of foam rolling, static stretching, dynamic stretching or frolicking through a meadow prior to your run does not matter as long as you are consistently doing the same thing and paying attention. The ritual of doing something consistently prior to your workouts helps you prepare for the session. We can use this to your advantage when it comes to making in-workout decisions on either pushing or pulling back on the desired plan.

I played basketball growing up. I had to be able to shoot because I was average athletically and tapped out at six feet for my height, even though I was listed as 6’ 1 on the roster (insert *wink emoji). Before I shot a free throw, I would dribble three times, place my hand with my thumb in the channel of the ball and shoot. Every time. You see this with athletes in every sport where they develop a ritual prior to each event. Whether that’s going through a certain routine, eating a certain food or listening to a specific song, ritualizing it allows them to focus and get locked in for whatever endeavor they are about to encounter. This is how we should approach our warm-up. Find a routine, run through it consistently to both prepare yourself for the task and assess how you are feeling.

The Need to Change Workouts on the Fly

Running is inherently uncomfortable. This is especially true for new runners who have not yet adapted to the specific demand running places on their legs. For many newbies, it can be hard to differentiate when something is normal soreness versus an actual problem.

A lot of runners think there’s a right and a wrong way to warm up before a training session or a lift in the weight room this thought might come from a coach that they had growing up, a personality that they follow on social media, or advice given to them from a healthcare provider but many of them think there’s a specific set of things that they absolutely should be doing before we go through their training session for the day. It’s almost seen as a right of passage into the training session. I can’t even count how many runners I’ve seen that I’ve been told that they need to do a certain set of things to loosen up a certain tissue, to stretch out a tight muscle to activate a certain area in order for them to not get hurt during their training session.

All that being said, I do think having a structured warm-up is important. It allows us a time to transition away from what we have been doing during the day, get our mindset in the right space for whatever it is that we’re going to be doing for the day, and generally assess how we are feeling.

I wanted to highlight how I prescribe warm-ups for my patients and clients and my OPINION on why this is the best way to prepare for a training session. There are three things I want to accomplish with a warm-up.

Slowly Increase Stress on the Body

A big key to a good warm-up is to slowly increase demand on your body. Slowly increasing your heart rate and body temperature allows a smooth transition into the training session. This can be done with walking, cycling, a set of drills, or a million other options.

Listen and Pay Attention to How You Feel

Every part of the warm-up should be a self-assessment. How are you feeling? Are there certain areas of the body that are tight or sore? Does this feel more challenging than normal?

Asking these questions allows us to assess if we might need to modify the session for the day. If your warm-up feels like trash and everything feels off, maybe we need to switch your workout to later in the week. This is why developing a routine matters. I have an overwhelming majority of my athletes go through a simple dynamic warm-up that cycles their hips, knees, ankles and feet through big ranges of motion while also having them work on keeping a tall posture while they move through various single leg positions. They do it consistently, month after month, so we have information to compare it to.

Move with Intension and Precision Through Single Leg Movements

As my good buddy, Chris Johnson says, “Running is about rhythm and timing”. Take a small amount of time to work on moving in a smooth, precise manner while we work through running specific positions. Runners have a hard time slowing down. Unless they have a background in dance, gymnastics or some other activity requiring very precise movements, these type of movements are often harder than traditional strength training exercises for them. This is a time to focus on moving slowly and precisely and working on mastering the ability to control yourself on one foot. You are going to be on one foot and then the other thousands of times during most runners so we want to make sure the body is ready for it. Also, this requires you to be present and not distracted.

While there is no absolute best way for everyone to warm up, there are a few key principles I feel are helpful. Hopefully, you can add some of this into your warm-up regimen. Next week, I’ll be posting a full-length video dissection of my preferred warm-up for runners and triathletes. For now, check out this condensed version below and let me know what you think!

Thanks for reading!
Nathan Carlson DPT, USATF