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New runners often show up to the start line of a 5K or 10K, half or full marathon, and head right to their corral without warming up. Maybe there’s not enough time before the gun goes off, or maybe they’re afraid the added mileage will tire their legs out.
Pretty much all of us have been guilty of it at some point. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that I not only perform better with a proper pre-race warm-up, but it’s even more beneficial for me to do one that’s on the longer side, usually at least 20 minutes or two miles long. Yes, that means if I’m racing a half marathon, it ends up being at least a 15-mile day, possibly longer if I’m able to add in a cooldown. With that added extra mileage, my muscles not only haven’t ended up overtired, I’ve recently run my best races to date.
Turns out this isn’t just coincidence. According to professional marathoner Nell Rojas (who, full disclosure, is my running coach) the mile or even less that most people run before a race isn’t usually long enough and is likely to prevent them from reaching their peak performance on the day. Research supports this as well, with a 2021 study showing that when three different warm-up protocols were tested among 800-meter runners, the ones who did the highest volume performed best.
“Most people don’t go from a gradual progression from where you are physiologically at rest to where you need to be for the race,” Rojas explains. “If you go straight from rest immediately to the race, you’ll plateau quicker that way because your body can’t react quickly enough.”
The benefits of a longer warm-up
It will make hard efforts feel easier
A longer warm-up gives your body and heart rate time to gradually ramp up, which is why Kaitlin Goodman, a USATF Level 2 certified run coach and four-time U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier, typically does a three-mile warm-up herself and assigns her athletes at least two miles before any hard effort.
“If you jump into a workout or race before you’re properly warmed up, your heart rate is going to spike and it’s really easy to redline early and make the workout just a whole lot harder than it needs to be,” Goodman says. “I liken it to starting on an uphill. Why would you want to do that?”
This becomes even more essential as we age. While many endurance athletes peak in terms of race performance as they get into their 30s and 40s, Goodman points out that their bodies aren’t as spry as they likely once were, which means they likely have a decreased ability to simply hop into a race and click off fast paces like they did in their 20s.
It helps protect you from injuries
Doing a sufficient warm-up can also decrease your risk of injury, which is something virtually all runners are always eager to avoid, Goodman says. This is especially important if you’re doing a race in extremely cold temperatures, when your muscles are likely to be stiff rather than warm and loose from the start, making it easier to strain something, she says.
“Your warm-up is also going to be even more important if you’re already managing through some niggles,” she says.
Should your warm-up length vary by distance?
Unsurprisingly, what you do before a 5K won’t necessarily match what you may do for a marathon. Rojas operates under the philosophy “the shorter the race, the longer the warm-up.”
That’s because shorter distances have you running fast paces from the get-go. For something like a 5K, for instance, you’re going to start running right at VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen your body can absorb and use during exercise, Rojas explains. “So you have to make sure all your systems are at 100 percent when you get to the start.”
Here’s how much she and Goodman recommend running as a warm-up before various races:
Before a 5K
Rojas typically has her athletes do a two- to three-mile warm-up before racing a 5K. Goodman suggests also picking up the pace near the end to get your heart going.
“For a 5K, it’s going to be hard most of the way (compared to the slow gradual burn of a marathon), and you want to have your heart rate up as you’re ready to start the race,” she says. “I like to progress the last half mile to mile of that warm-up, so you’re bringing your heart rate up, and doing a few strides on the line so that you are really ready to go and [your body isn’t] caught off guard when the gun goes off.”
Before a 10K
Both Rojas and Goodman recommend doing at least two miles before racing a 10K.
“I lean more toward two miles so that you can be really good and warm because that’s going to be a pace generally that’s faster and harder [than a longer race], and so you just want to be fully warmed up before then,” Goodman says.
Before a half marathon
Both Rojas and Goodman typically assign their athletes one and a half to two miles of easy running (approximately two minutes slower than their goal race pace) before a half marathon. Rojas also tacks on three-minutes at around marathon pace, 90-seconds at half pace, and then 60 seconds a little bit faster than race pace, all with a one- to two-minute recovery jog in between, to prime runners’ legs for the impending harder effort.
Before a marathon
Depending on your racing strategy, most recreational runners may not need to do a running warm-up before a marathon, Rojas says. If you’re approaching the race with a negative-split strategy, those first couple of miles can serve as a warm-up.
If you’re doing a larger race like the New York City or Boston Marathon, you may find that a crowded start will force you to start off slower, Goodman adds. Not only that, but if you’re doing a race where you have to hang out in your corral for half an hour before you start, you should just skip your warm-up, especially if it’s cold, since you’re just going to get cold again while you’re waiting, she says.
However, if you do have the time and space for it when you’re going into a marathon wanting to even-split and start out right at your goal pace, Goodman recommends a very short shakeout jog to not only get your legs moving but to calm your nerves.
“I know for me, it’s really helpful to shake out the cobwebs of my brain, even if it’s just five to eight minutes of shuffling around,” she says.
What to do besides running
Unlike in a workout, you likely aren’t going to go straight from your warm-up run to starting a race, Rojas points out. Instead, you’re probably going to want to get in one last bathroom stop and possibly check in a gear bag. So she recommends doing some dynamic exercises in the 15 to 20 minutes you may have before it’s go-time.
“This can include drills like butt kicks, high-knees, and leg swings, keeping you moving rather than standing still,” she says. Most coaches will tell you it’s helpful to practice these before workouts, too, so that you can figure out what works best for your body before race day. And when done regularly, drills can become a signal to your mind that it’s time to run hard. Game on!
Follow this dynamic warmup routine to get your legs ready to race: