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Do You Really Need To Warm Up Before A Run? The Science Is Surprisingly Clear

As a sport, running is littered with injuries, and it doesn’t need to be. Whether it was a running buddy or a teacher back in school, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “You should always warm up before you run.”

A warm up before a run is a surprisingly uncommon practice among recreational runners. We often shrug it off as unimportant and just want to crack on with the actual running.

In my personal practice, the number of runners I work with who actually perform a proper, well-thought-out warm-up before they run is incredibly low. They’ve mostly been able to get away with not warming up and avoiding injury until now, so why bother?

The science behind warming up is surprisingly clear, although rather misunderstood. What valuable insights can the existing scientific literature offer us regarding the benefits of warming up?

This article will delve into what a warm-up is, why we should warm up before a run, and what happens if we don’t.

We’ll look at:

  • What Is A Warm Up?
  • Why Do We Warm Up?
  • What Should An Effective Warm Up Before A Run Include?
  • What Happens If We Don’t Warm Up?

Let’s jump into it!

A lunge on a track as a warm up before a run.

What is a warm-up?

A warm-up is a set of specific or general exercises or activities performed before engaging in more strenuous physical activity, in this case, running.

The primary purpose of a warm-up is to prepare the body for the coming demands that will be placed on it when running by gradually increasing heart rate, blood circulation, and body temperature.

Warm-ups can vary based on the individual, the type of exercise, and specific goals.

A proper warm-up will typically mimic a scaled-back variation of the sport that is about to be performed, including a mixture of cardiovascular, resistance exercises, and plyometric or stretching components.

A quad stretch.

Why Do we warm up?

Warming up serves several crucial purposes; here are the physiological benefits you can expect:

#1: Increased Muscle Temperature

When you engage in a warm-up routine, the heat generated by muscle contractions speeds up the metabolic processes within a cell to make it contract faster and with more force.

This is vital because it makes your muscles more flexible and less susceptible to injury. The increased flexibility is essential as it allows for smoother and more efficient muscle contractions when you start your exercise.

#2: Improved Blood Circulation

Warming up also has a positive impact on your cardiovascular system. As you engage in a warm-up, your heart rate and blood flow increase.

This boost in circulation results in more oxygen and nutrients being delivered to your working muscles. Think of it as your muscles getting a fresh supply of fuel and oxygen to perform at their best.

This ensures that your muscles receive the necessary resources for optimal performance and reduces the risk of muscle fatigue.

A knee hug.

#3: Activation of the Nervous System

Your nervous system plays a significant role in controlling muscle contractions. When you engage in a warm-up, you’re essentially priming your central nervous system.

It’s like fine-tuning the communication between your brain and your muscles. This fine-tuning enhances the efficiency of neural pathways responsible for muscle contractions, increasing the nerve conduction rate.

The end result? Quicker reaction times and improved coordination during your exercise routine.

So we’ve looked at three clear-cut, scientifically-backed physiological benefits of a warm-up, but how does that translate to performance and injury reduction?

#4: Performance

A proper warm-up plays a scientifically significant role in enhancing running performance.

Scientific studies have provided compelling evidence demonstrating that a well-structured warm-up routine can have a substantial and positive impact on a diverse array of performance markers.

These findings extend across a range of sports and physical activities, and the benefits are substantiated by numerous pieces of scientific literature.

Some of the key performance markers that have been shown to improve with an appropriate warm-up include sprint times, jump height, agility skills, and balance.

This is attributed to increased muscle temperature, improved muscle flexibility, and optimized neuromuscular function, all of which contribute to faster sprint times.

A person jumping.

#5: Injury Reduction

A team of researchers conducted a study to evaluate the effectiveness of a thorough warm-up routine on a group of 1892 female football players aged between 13 and 17.

Their findings were promising, showing that those whose training groups implemented this warm-up program not only had a significantly reduced risk of sustaining injuries but were also specifically less prone to severe injuries and overuse injuries.

Since this initial study, the effectiveness of such warm-up programs has been further validated in both male and female footballers across various age groups.

Importantly, these warm-up routines have also been successfully adapted for use in other sports, including rugby and running. This underscores their broad applicability and potential benefits in enhancing injury prevention strategies across the athletic spectrum.

You’ll notice that I use the words “thorough warm-up routine” in the sentences above. Not all warm-up routines are equal.

Below, we will look at what an effective warm-up should include.

A runner's stretch.

What Should An Effective Warm Up Before A Run Include?

Not all warm-ups are created equal.

If you think a warm-up includes flaccidly stretching your quadriceps while talking to a mate, think again.

Stretching and warming up are often thought of as synonymous. However, if you are warming up before your run, it is advisable to incorporate dynamic stretching into your warm-up routine.

Static stretching, on the other hand, may potentially diminish strength and could have an impact on overall performance.

You can include static stretching within a warm-up, but it should play a small part in a comprehensive warm-up routine.

The objective of an effective active warm-up is to strike the right balance, ensuring that the muscles become adequately warm without overworking them.

People warming up on a soccer field.

A warm-up should be sport-specific. Different sports may require specialized warm-up routines that target the specific muscle groups and movements involved.

For example, a warm-up for running will likely focus on activating the muscles of the legs with dynamic stretches while gradually ramping up your heart rate.

So, how long should a warm-up last?

The length and intensity of a warm-up can vary. A brief, low-intensity warm-up may suffice for a short run. However, a more vigorous warm-up may be needed before high-intensity interval training or competitive races.

A common recommendation is to spend about 10-15 minutes on a warm-up. This provides ample time to gradually increase heart rate, muscle temperature, and joint flexibility.

Within this timeframe, you should include a low-intensity cardiovascular component alongside specific dynamic stretching (active movements that mimic the exercise you’ll be doing.)

That said, if you can only spend 5 minutes warming up, do it.

Knee hugs.

Make it work for you, too. The perfect warm-up will vary based on the individual. Factors such as age, fitness level, and any pre-existing injuries or conditions can impact the type and duration of a warm-up.

Older individuals or those with specific health concerns may need longer warm-ups to prevent injury.

If you fall into this category, consider working with a physical therapist to find the optimal routine for you.

Although the science provides general guidelines, personal comfort, enjoyment, and experience play a role in determining the ideal warm-up. Be confident in what works best for you.

What Happens if we don’t warm up?

So, what happens if you don’t warm up? Are you doomed to a life of injuries and poor performance? No, but you are selling yourself short.

To become a resilient runner, our training regimen should encompass numerous elements. These include ensuring ample rest, adopting a nutritious diet, engaging in strength training, and… warming up.

When I warm up, I feel confident that I am giving myself the best chance to remain injury-free.

Do You Really Need To Warm Up Before A Run? The Science Is Surprisingly Clear 1

Skipping a warm-up before a run will result in:

  1. Increased Risk of Injury: All other variables remaining equal, there is a heightened risk of injury when you bypass an adequate warm-up. When muscles and tissues are cold, they become less flexible and more susceptible to strains or tears when suddenly subjected to the stresses of rigorous exercise.
  2. Decreased Performance: Without the preparatory phase, your body won’t be in its optimal state to meet the demands of running. This can result in reduced efficiency in muscle contractions and delayed activation of energy systems.

Final Thoughts

The science is clear: warming up before a run or any form of exercise is a great way to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and subsequently promote long-term fitness.

A well-structured warm-up prepares the body both physically and mentally for the upcoming activity, improving muscle function, circulation, and coordination. Make time for it.

While the specifics of warm-ups may vary based on individual factors and the type of exercise, the core principles remain consistent. The importance of gradually increasing heart rate, sport-specific movements, circulation, and body temperature cannot be overstated.

So, the next time you lace up your running shoes, set aside 10 minutes to engage in a thorough warm-up. Your body will thank you with improved performance, reduced injury risk, and a smoother, more enjoyable run.

A person jogging.

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Ben is a qualified Personal Trainer and Sports Massage Therapist with a particular interest in running performance and injury. He has spent the last 9 years working with runners at his clinic in Brighton. Ben is a keen runner and avid cyclist. Evenly splitting his time between trail running, road biking, and MTB.

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