Thursday, September 25, 2014

Getting the warm-up right



 
How do you warm up for a race or workout? If you're like most high school and college runners, your warm-up is probably not too far off from Joe Rubio's humorous characterization of the typical runner's pre-workout routine

"10-15 min easy. 4 half-hearted strides. BS a bit. Run the workout"

This might be sufficient if you're a novice runner.  But if you're at all serious about competitive running, it's well worth the time to take your warm-up more seriously.  Today, I'd like to take a look at several elements of the warm-up and consider how a more advanced runner might use them to his or her advantage.

To be clear, the purpose of a warm-up is to get your body ready for the demands of the workout (or the race).  Because of this, different workouts or different races will necessarily demand different warm-up routines, as will different individual runners.  If you warm up for a 10k the same way you warm up for a mile, you probably need to reconsider your warm-up routine.  In this article, we will analyze several elements of the warm-up routine and discuss various ways to modify them based on the situation.

1.  The warm-up run

The first and most obvious part of a warm-up routine is the warm-up run itself.  The most basic and most common way of doing this is 8-15 minutes of easy running.  This can be modified in two directions to suit your needs: you can either do more running (20-30 minutes, for example), or you can do some or all of the warm-up run at a faster speed. 

Running at a higher intensity near the end of your warm-up routine primes your body for a sustained effort in a workout or a race.  If you jog a bit, do a few short strides, and start doing a workout like 8x1000m at anaerobic threshold with a minute rest, you'll find that you don't feel your best until the second or third repeat.  That's because your body wasn't fully revved up for the first one.  Like starting a car engine cold, you naturally feel off-kilter during your first few minutes of faster running.  If a workout or a race is important to you, it's vital to get this off-kilter sensation out of the way before it starts. 

Now, it's not mandatory to do faster running during the warm-up run.  I do think it's mandatory to do some sustained faster running at some point during the warm-up as a whole, but it can also come in the form of a medium-length repeat done before or after strides, which we'll discuss later.

Another reason to run faster than an easy pace for some or all of the warm-up jog is for mechanical reasons.  Some middle-distance runners find that they prefer to run their warm-up at a faster speed, as the mechanics of running, say, six-minute mile pace, are a lot closer to the running mechanics at the speed of their race than eight-minute mile pace. 

I don't like using the warm-up run as a way to get in more mileage.  If you are doing 20 or 30 minutes of running for your warm-up, it should be because you feel that you need that much easy running to get fully prepared to work out or race, not because you want to hit your goal mileage totals for the week.

2.  Stretching and mobility

As most runners have heard, static stretching does not accomplish much.  It neither improves performance nor decreases injury risk in healthy runners, but a lot of distance athletes still include static stretching as part of their warm-up routine because "it's just what we do."  I feel that static stretching has no place in the warm-up routine of most runners—however, static stretching can be helpful if you are recovering from or are prone to an injury tied to tight muscles.  Plantar fasciitis is a good example: because calf stretching has been shown to be a helpful treatment for that injury, we can suppose that tight calves increase stress on the plantar fascia.  Therefore, stretching out the calves to reduce strain on the plantar fascia before a workout or a race makes sense.  Other examples would be quadriceps stretching for patellar tendonitis and patellofemoral pain syndrome, and tensor fascia lata and glute stretching for IT band syndrome. 

Instead of static stretching, I recommend including mobility exercises like dynamic stretching and sprint drills.  These exercises accomplish two things.  First, they work through a broader range of motion (in both joints and muscles) than easy or moderate running, which primes your body for faster running.  Second, mobility exercises kick-start your fast-twitch fibers and use the stretch-shortening cycle in muscles and tendons to return energy from the ground, which are both necessary when running fast.  There's a whole host of specific biological mechanisms that are stimulated by dynamic stretching and sprint drills, all of which play an increasingly important role in running at fast speeds.  Because of this, doing mobility is very important when you're about to run fast (say, an 800m race), but is not so important when you're doing a lower intensity workout. 

3.  Strides

The term "strides" is awfully broad.  Broadly, it just means running fast for about ten to thirty seconds to recruit fast twitch fibers and stretch out joint and muscle range-of-motion in a running-specific way, taking enough recovery so that acidity does not accumulate in the legs.  As Joe Rubio points out in the introductory quote, a lot of runners half-heartedly stride out at a moderately fast pace for eighty or one hundred meters a few times, then start their workout. 

To prepare for workouts or races in a more calculated way, it helps to be more specific about what we mean when we say "strides."  There are four ways to qualify the basic principle of a "stride"; these are the distance, speed, structure, and volume. 

Distance

The distance of a true stride should be at least 70 or 80 meters, and should not be longer than 200 meters.  Running at fast speeds beyond this distance demands a substantial amount of anaerobic energy, which is contrary to the purpose of a stride (though this does not mean a fast 300 or 400 could not be part of your warm-up; see section 4 for more on this).  Too short of a stride doesn't allow you to reach a meaningful speed, and is akin to doing two or three high-knee steps as a sprint drill.  Some amount of repetition is necessary to get the desired effect.  I personally prefer strides of 100-130 meters, but doing 4-5x150m strides would not be ridiculous.

Speed

The speed of your strides should touch on both ends of your race pace.  Part of the usefulness of doing strides is that it makes race pace feel more comfortable, so if you're running a 1500, you need to work your way down to a bit faster than 1500 meter pace on some of your strides to achieve this effect.  I personally believe that strides should be progressively-paced, moving from somewhat slower than race pace in the initial strides to somewhat faster than race pace in the final stride.  Like with mobility exercises, the importance of faster-paced strides is proportional to the speed of the race or workout you're about to run.

Structure

The structure of a stride, or how it's actually run, is also open for tinkering with.  Most runners take "strides" to mean an evenly-paced run over the prescribed distance.  This is beneficial because it helps internalize a speed (like race pace), but the drawback is that there is no progressive increase in range of motion, muscle fiber recruitment, and explosive energy return from the ground—which is what we want with an ideal warm-up.  This is precisely why I prefer progressively faster strides, ex. 4x100m at 8k, 5k, 3k,and mile pace, versus doing all of your strides at the same speed.   

Another way of accomplishing this is by doing accelerations or "accels."  In these stride variants, you start out running slow and build up to a faster speed near the end of each stride.  Of course, the drawback here is that you don't spend very much time running a particular speed continuously. 

Finally, doing a modified acceleration with a "burst" at maximum or near-maximum speed in the middle is the only practical way of warming up for a workout or race that demands true sprinting, like the 400 or 600 meters.  Because of the extreme demands of top-speed running, it cannot be sustained for more than a few seconds without creating fatigue.  I'm no expert on warm-ups for four hundred meter runners, but I can say that a distance runner doing the 400m should include a few accelerations with a burst at max or near-max sprinting speed no closer than eight minutes to the start of the race.

Volume

The appropriate volume of strides will vary based on the event and the experience level of the runner.  The faster the speed of the workout or race, the greater the volume of strides that need to be done to be optimally warmed-up.  However, doing too many strides starts to cut into your energy reserves and hampers your ability to run well in the workout or race.  As you'd expect, older and more experienced runners, as well as higher-mileage athletes, can handle significantly more strides than a young, low volume runner. 

As a rough guideline, a total of 400 or 500 meters of even-paced progressively faster strides (e.g. 4x100m, 4x120m, or 5x100m) should be sufficient for races over two miles long.  For the middle distances, 600 to 1000 meters of strides and accelerations might be necessary to be fully prepared.  See the sample warm-up routines at the end of this article for some examples of how this might be structured.

4.  Continuous paced runs / intervals

In addition to strides, it is often useful to include longer blocks of fast running as a prelude to the race or the workout proper.  There isn't really a great term for this, but they're essentially interval workout-style repeats done as part of the warm-up. 

Remember the example of the 8x1000m threshold workout, and how you tend not to feel your best until the second or third repeat? You can use this to your advantage by doing a 600-1000m repeat at anaerobic threshold after doing strides before a distance race or a distance workout. 

I've also found that type of threshold repeat is extremely good at calming pre-race jitters.  I'm a big proponent of making races feel just like workouts, so getting your body in workout mode tends to shut out a lot of intrusive thoughts on race day. 

These threshold repeats are a trick I picked up from watching interviews with Jack Daniels.  To paraphrase him, at cross country races, you see everybody doing sprints before their race starts.  Then after the gun goes off, what do they do? Sprint! And of course, they sustain this fast pace too long and end up going out too hard.  Doing 2-3 minutes of threshold running as the last thing you do before you start the race is very good at preparing yourself to sustain an even pace and avoid going out too hard. 

Middle distance races require an intensity that's quite far from the anaerobic threshold, so you don't want it to be the last thing you do before you start the race.  It's better to do three or four strides, then a continuous run at threshold, then a few more strides or accelerations before the race.  Middle distance runners tend not to have as strong of an endurance base, so they will need more time after the threshold run before they start up with another set of strides.

Another possible addition is to do a few segments of running at race pace.  We can apply the same logic from our 8x1000m at AnT workout to a session like 16x200m at mile pace.  In a workout like this, you won't feel fully primed and ready to roll until you've done a few 200s already.  Adding 2x200m at mile pace as the final element of your warm-up for a mile race can serve as a last-minute primer for getting locked into the right pace.  Do be careful with this, though, as you don't want to inject too much intensity immediately prior to a race.  The greater the intensity of pre-race intervals, the further out they should be from the start of the race.

General guidelines and specific examples

Broadly speaking, there are two principles you should use to guide how you structure your warm-up for a workout or a race. 

First, the faster the speed you must run in the workout or race, the more warm-up you need to do. 

Second, older and higher-mileage runners can and should do a more comprehensive warm-up than younger and lower-mileage runners.

Here are several examples of how an experienced runner might adjust his or her warm-up routine to fit different workout or race situations. 



Example 1: warm-up for 5km cross country race

*15 minutes easy
*Dynamic stretching and sprint drills
*Put on spikes
*4x100m strides at 8k, 5k, 3k, and 2k race pace with 100m jog recovery between strides
*3min rest, 2.5 minutes at anaerobic threshold pace, finishing 5-8 minutes before start of race
*Easy jogging / walking until race beings



Example 2: warm-up for high-speed workout: 6 sets of 2x150m, descending to 400m pace

*15 minutes easy
*Dynamic stretching and sprint drills
*Put on spikes
*4x100m strides at 5k, 3k, mile, mile pace with 100m jog recovery between strides
*600m at anaerobic threshold, 3min rest
*4x120m accelerations building to mile, 1000m, 800m, 400m pace, 1min between accelerations
*4-6min rest, start workout



Example 3: warm-up for moderate speed workout: 60min long-fast run at 80% of 5k pace

*10min easy
*Dynamic stretching
*3x100m strides at threshold, 10k, 5k pace, 30sec between strides
*Start workout 



Example 4: warm-up for 1 mile race

*15 minutes easy
*Dynamic stretching and sprint drills
*Put on spikes
*4x100m strides at 5k, 3k, mile, 1000m pace with 100m jog recovery between strides
*3min rest, 600m at anaerobic threshold pace
*3-4min rest, 2x200m at goal mile pace with 200m jog recovery, finishing 7-10min before race
*Easy jogging / walking until race beings




Note how faster and slower speeds require different amounts of warming-up.  Also consider that these examples are for a college runner or high-mileage (60-70+ miles per week) high school runner.  The volume and intensity of some of these warm-up variants, particularly in examples 2 and 4, would be totally inappropriate for a 15-year-old high school track runner doing 30 miles per week.


Miscellaneous tips

A few other factors affect warm-ups: If you're doing a fast workout early in the morning, you'll find that you need to do more high-intensity running before you're ready to go (especially if you're not a morning person).  This is probably because of the circadian cycle, which appears to prime the body for endurance work in the later afternoon and the evening, for reasons which are as-of-yet unclear.

When it comes to warming up for a race, I strongly encourage you to warm-up exactly the same as if you were doing a workout at race pace.  This helps eliminate unpredictability on race-day.  The single biggest mistake most runners make with their race-day warm-up is include too much down-time.  I often see high schoolers leave to warm up an hour or more before their race, even if they're only doing ten minutes of running, some stretching, and a few strides.  A lot of the benefits of warming up are lost if you spend half an hour sitting around after finishing it.

Some extra buffer time is necessary on the day of a race because you'll need to account for getting your bib, checking in for your race, getting pre-race instructions from officials, waiting in line for the bathroom (often multiple times), etc.  But it's entirely possible to do all of this and complete a very comprehensive warm-up, like warm-up example 4 above, in 45 or 50 minutes.  Things do get a little complicated when you're dealing with an entire team of runners, and it is always better to have a bit too much time than too little. 

4 comments:

  1. What about warm-up for progression runs?

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  2. Good question. For a true "Kenyan-style" progression run (starting very slowly and gradually progressing over time), I prefer no warm-up at all! Or rather, I'd technically count the first mile or two of the progression run as the "warm-up" but really, the progression run is just a natural, gradual increase in pace from the very easy pace of a warm-up. For a more structured progression run (ex. starting at 6:00 mile pace, descending 10sec per mile) I recommend a warm-up similar to what you'd do for a long tempo run: 10-15 minutes easy, drills, and 4-5 progressive strides.

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  3. What do you suggest for the HS athlete who runs for example: 1600-800-3200. After the first 45-50 minute comprehensive warm-up, what do they do immediately after race #1 and then prepare for race #2?

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    Replies
    1. Especially for a high schooler, very little—just a 4min jog after the first race, then a 4-5min jog plus a few strides before the second one. With that much volume of fast running, a high schooler is already going to be handling a lot of fatigue, so you don't want to do a lot of fast running as a warm up after the first race.

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