In 1989, when San Diego Track Club runner Paul Greer ran a 3:59.79 mile and spent a few summers on the European track circuit, he noticed something interesting. Instead of doing the traditional short, quick strides favored by most runners, some of the Kenyans were doing substantially longer strides as part of their warm-ups. They were doing them on the day before the race, not on race-day (as far as he saw), but that itself was unusual enough that he took note.
At the time, it was merely a curiosity. But now, as coach of the club he raced for 30 years ago, Greer has incorporated extended strides, ranging from 30 seconds to a full minute, into his group’s warm-up routine, quite a bit different from traditional protocols.
We all know, intuitively, that warm-up is valuable. Without it, we start out sluggish and slow, sacrificing valuable time as we warm up during the race.
But what exactly is the perfect warm-up?
The Aerobic Priming Mechanism
Standard protocol (except in marathons, where warming up during the first mile may be the best way to go) is to do a couple of easy miles followed by a series of fast strides.
But why? If you’re running a 5K, what earthly good does blasting out a few fast 50s or 100s do for you?
The answer, says Andrew Jones, an exercise physiologist at the University of Exeter, UK, who has been studying the warm-up process in the lab, is not as much good as you might think.
In a string of papers published in the 2000s, he put athletes in the lab and measured how their bodies responded to high-intensity time trials after various types of warm-ups. (He worked with cyclists, but his findings should apply equally well to runners.)
What he discovered is that it takes time for your body to fully “switch on” its aerobic system. During that startup phase, it has to rely on anaerobic systems of energy production, until the aerobic system fully ramps up.
Unsurprisingly, if you do this with a cold start—i.e., no warm-up—it takes longer. But if you have primed the aerobic system with a prior high-intensity effort—a suitably structured warm-up—your aerobic system ramps up much more rapidly.
Physiologically, he says, what is happening is a combination of two factors: (1) the warm-up has increased your heart rate and cardiac output, thereby sending more blood (and more oxygen) to your muscles; and (2) your blood vessels respond by dilating, allowing that blood to be delivered more rapidly to your muscles. These two factors, in turn, help activate oxygen-using enzymes in your mitochondria (the subcellular power plants that run your aerobic energy system), preparing them to get ready to go once you really need them.
The result is that when you move from the warm-up to the race, your body is primed to go rapidly into full-fledged aerobic mode, with less initial drain on anaerobic reserves. “This,” Jones says, “should retard fatigue and improve performance.”
“Anyone who has done, say, a session of 10 x 400m,” he adds, “will know that the second one feels easier, even though, theoretically, you should be slightly fatigued.”
The aerobic priming mechanism is the reason why that occurs.
The effect, he adds, seems to last for 10 to 15 minutes, allowing you plenty of time to warm up, hit the toilet, and mentally prep for the race (or time trial) ahead.
The Case for Extended Strides
To fully harness it, however, you need to make the warm-up long enough for the aerobic system to actually turn on. “Short strides won’t prime the aerobic system so much as a longer effort,” Jones says.
Or, as international coach Peter Thompson, now residing in Eugene, Oregon, put it in a 2006 article in the British magazine Athletics Weekly—describing his reactions to distance runners doing short strides at sprint effort—“it just seemed that what the athletes were doing in preparation was unconnected to the following race.”
Based on that observation, combined with subsequent reading of Jones’ research, he too came up with the idea of warming up with extended strides, running slower than traditional shorter strides.
He suggests running them at a pace right around your aerobic maximum. For elites, he suggested in his Athletics Weekly article, they might be extended to as long as 300 meters. For the rest of us, 200 meters might be enough. And two or three of them is all you need.
Thompson’s friend Bob Williams, who also coaches in Eugene, agrees. “Three 200s at 3,000-meter rhythm get the blood to flow to all the organs, and basically enrich the body’s ability to manage lactate [i.e., its aerobic system],” he says. “All the athletes I coach who do it like it.”
“If you don’t warm up properly, you will go into early oxygen debt,” he adds, echoing Jones’ research.
If you try this, however, it’s important to hit the right pace. Three flat-out 200m sprints might prime your aerobic system, but they will also tire your muscles. “Pretend you’re in the middle of a 3,000-meter race and run at that rhythm,” Williams says.
Williams likes to use the same protocol for warm-ups for speed workouts.
Greer agrees. “As a coach, I have incorporated the Kenyans’ workout into our warm-up routine,” he says.
Though, he notes, it’s become more like a “warm-up circuit.”
His formula, he says, now involves a combination of extended strides (30–60 seconds), 100-yard strides, and calisthenics. The idea is to do three to four sets that include 30–60 sec at 5K pace, 25 jumping jacks, push-ups, or sit-ups, and a 100-yard stride at 95% effort.
“Change the calisthenics each time,” he says. “What I really like about that is it maximizes the components of fitness, which include cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, flexibility, and muscle strength.”
Not that this is as important for training as it is for racing.
In fact, Jones says, speeding up in training as your body warms up into the workout means you are doing cut-downs, which “is no bad thing.”
In a race, however, you really don’t want to waste time warming up. What you want to do is to toe the line as thoroughly warmed up and ready to go as possible—which means that you might want to ditch the standard super-fast strides and try something a bit longer and more aerobic.
Worst case, all you’ve done is tried something that doesn’t work for you.
Best case, you PR.