By Cindy Abrami, NASM-CES, BS in Nutrition

At the 2014 USATF Masters 8K Road Race National Championships, I almost missed the start of the race.  I had gone through my typical pre-race warm up, what I like to call “performance prep”, and had to hit the porta-potty one last time.  While in said porta-potty my heart dropped as I heard the playing of the National Anthem.  I misjudged the time and was now in the wrong place, about 400 meters away from the starting line and no time to spare.

I high-tailed it out the door (I almost took the whole door with me) and proceeded to essentially race 400 meters around the parking lot and up the hill onto the road.  With all the runners tightly tucked into the starting chute, my only option was to settle into the back.  I was breathing hard from the effort and was wondering if I’d just blown my chances for a good race.  I have to admit, I’d often wondered if performing some very high intensity longer interval efforts right before a race would help or hurt the performance.  Afterall, in workouts I often feel best after a few intervals are under my belt,  but I’d never had the guts to test this out before a race, especially a national championship caliber event.  How serendipitous that it was now forced upon me.

I won’t keep you in suspense.  I proceeded to have one of the best races of my life.  At 45 years old, I ran 29:38 for the 8K (just slightly more than 5 miles so this was sub-6 minute pace) and earned my first National Championship title.

It’s hard to say how much the abrupt addition to my warm up helped but my hunch is that it was a huge key.  My first mile felt effortless (moreso than usual) and I passed runner after runner whose breathing sounded like they were trying to suck eggs through a straw.  My cardiovascular and muscular systems were ready to run hard, and theirs apparently weren’t.

The Importance of a Proper Warm Up

Whether or not you have the guts to test out adding a hard 400 meter interval seconds before your next race start, the main point is that a proper warm up (performance prep) is absolutely essential for a successful race or for a successful high intensity workout.  However, my observation is that many athletes are reluctant to do any type of warm up or do not do enough of a warm up.  I suspect some of that has to do with how horrible we tend to feel when our nerves are all jumbled up in our stomachs, our nervous energy causes us to want to go curl back up under the covers, and it just doesn’t feel all that good to get the body going.  Some feel that they will be wasting precious energy and will feel tired in their race (or workout) if they warm up.  I’ve heard many athletes assert that they will use the first mile or two of the race for their warm up.  Let’s take a quick look at what a proper warm up physiologically accomplishes and we’ll begin to see that it is vital to warm up beforehand if you want to race well or have a successful hard workout.

What a Warm Up Accomplishes

A warm up is essentially movement preparation that slowly takes our body through initial adaptations that will later create a greater amount of efficiency.  We gently build up intensity during this time.  It allows the body to slowly adjust to the demand by increasing the heart rate and breathing, increasing blood flow to the working muscles to deliver oxygen and remove waste, and primes the production of ATP so that the body can efficiently use energy.  Often when warming up, breathing is much higher and the effort feels greater than it will once everything settles in.  This process will take place one way or the other.  Those who skip the warm up or don’t do enough to reach efficiency often find themselves overworking and under-performing during the crucial first stages of a race.  This is not the best strategy if you plan to race well.

Remember too, that warm ups should not only be done before racing, but in also before high intensity workouts, and to a lesser degree, before any type of workout.  And don’t worry about burning energy during your warm up before the race.  By warming up properly, you’ll actually be saving energy in the long run because you’ll have created a more efficient environment in your body and while others are suffering early for lack of warm up, you’ll be floating by them, hardly feeling the effort.

The Four Phases of a Proper Pre-Race Warm Up

Prior to a race, not only are you preparing your body but you’re also preparing your mind.  No matter whether your race is running only or involves multiple sports such as triathlon, the basic warm up format is the same.  Warming up as specific to your race as you can is helpful.  For triathlon, a warm up can be performed by running or swimming, or both.  The examples below will be a running warm up.

  • Warm Up Phase One: The Initial Shake Out

Approximately an hour before race start (yes you have to make sure and arrive to your race venue at least an hour before hand), perform an easy effort run which ranges between 10-20 minutes (1-2 miles).  This is slow and easy and will gradually and naturally get a little more intense as you warm up.  Keep your effort level low.  During this time, you should tune into your body and sense how things are feeling and spend some time calming the mind.  After this initial shake out you should be feeling warm and loose.

  • Warm Up Phase Two: Dynamic Warm Up

Once you’ve completed that initial shake out, perform a series of dynamic stretches and movement patterns.  These types of movements should also be performed during your training so that you are familiar with them and they are part of your regular warm up routine.  Dynamic stretching, as opposed to static stretching, is done by dynamically taking your body through ranges of motion, keeping it smooth without putting sudden ballistic pressure on the muscles.  Keep your body moving actively during this phase so that your heart rate stays slightly elevated and you continue to warm up.  Here are some examples of dynamic stretches ideal for running and multisport:

  1. Knee Hugs – In standing position, gently pull one knee up toward your chest and pause for a short stretch, then release that leg and alternate to the other leg. Repeat the pattern and you can keep it more active by taking a few quick steps between alternating legs.  Keep moving forward for 30-50 meters for this and all other dynamic stretches.
  2. Knee Craddles – Similar to above, gently pull one knee and ankle up toward your chest now keeping the leg at an angle (knee held higher than ankle). Hold for a short stretch, then release and repeat as mentioned above.  Be careful not to pull the knee or ankle beyond the correct range of motion.
  3. Hip Extensions – Gently hold one foot behind you as if in a quad stretch and squeeze the gluteus muscles and open up the hip. Hold for a short pause, then release and repeat on the other leg.
  4. Dynamic Hamstring stretch – Holding your hands out in front of you at shoulder height, alternate lifting one leg up toward your outstretched hands. Try to keep the leg as straight as possible and ensure you keep it smooth and controlled.  The idea is to gently and dynamically move the body to a correct muscle length.

There are other types of dynamic stretches that can be included in this phase.

  • Warm Up Phase Three: Strides and Drills

As soon as  you’re done with phase Two, it will be approximately 30 minutes before race start, and you will now begin adding some intensity.  If you’re doing a running event, put your race shoes on for this last phase.  Start with a few drills that you are familiar with.  Again you’ll note that it’s important to also be doing these types of things during your training as part of your training warm ups.  On race day you’re just going through routines that you’ve been doing regularly.  Make sure you’re doing drills you’re comfortable with and used to.  Examples are high knee drills, variations of skipping drills, bounding, you can perform drills that include some hopping.  Choose around 4 different drills to do.  If you’d like to learn some drills, here’s a great set of videos to check out: Bobby McGee Playlist of Drills

Follow your drills with 4-6 strides that are around 20 seconds long.  The strides should be a strong effort and get more intense each time.  The focus should be on good, efficient form, tuning into your breathing and harder efforts, and staying light on your feet.  Looking back at my opening story, hitting some intensity is an important part of a proper warm up.

By the time you’ve completed drills and strides it should be about 5 minutes before the race and it’s time to pull off your warm clothes, grab any items you need and head over to the starting line.

  • Warm Up Final Phase: Keep Moving and Striding

Arrive to the starting line with time to spare but use that time to continue your preparation.  Continue to perform strides and mix in short bouts of drills, with light jogging to keep the heart rate slightly elevated.  Often there is an area in front of the starting line where athletes can do this.  You should be sweaty and breathing a little harder than normal when the gun goes off.

All of these phases apply similarly to triathlon or other multisport events!

Remember to practice this type of warm up ritual before key high intensity workouts in training and you’ll have your own perfect routine for race day.  With a proper warm up, you’re set up to have a great race and you’ll be feeling smooth and relatively comfortable in the first phase of your race!

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About the Author: Cindy Abrami, BS Nutrition, NASM-CPT/CES, AFAA, Pn1 Nutrition Coach, UESCA Certified Running and Multisport Coach

Cindy is a fitness and nutrition Professional, and elite level masters athlete with a passion to help her community find fullness of health and abundance of life through fitness and proper nutrition.  She is the owner of The Wellness Movement Santa Barbara.  Cindy is a competitive runner, duathlete and triathlete and holds national champion status as a masters runner and is the 2018 and 2019 ITU Sprint Duathlon World Champion (50-54).  She is currently working to become a Human Movement Specialist with a focus on injury prevention.