Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Race Warm-Ups

This guy knows it’s time to bust out the track suits. We’re talking warm-ups today. (Photo credit: lilfatdog)

Ever have a sucky race? Of course, we all have. Maybe afterwards you analyzed your log to see if something didn’t go right in training. Maybe you pinpointed something you ate or didn’t eat as the culprit. Maybe you chalked it up to Evil P. Maybe you shrugged your shoulders and concluded you just woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

What if it was none of those things? Did you ever consider that maybe it was your warm-up that did you in?

That’s right. An improper warm-up will DOOM you to a crappy race! 

To help us all avoid the pain of enduring a crappy race due to an improper warm-up, let’s investigate why we need warm-ups and what we can do to ensure we do them properly.

I know this firsthand. I was starting to get back into shape after my first child was born. It was a little shy of 6 months after the fact. I was in downtown Cleveland to run the Rite Aid Cleveland 10k, which often, not always, is a very competitive race. I arrived late, so I didn’t have much time for warming up. I jogged around for a few minutes, but it was nearing time for the race. I made my way to the starting area and meant to do strides, but there wasn’t enough time. I jumped on the starting line and we were off. But I just. couldn’t. go.

I ran ok, but I felt heavy from the start. This race was a bust, because I didn’t properly warm-up.

I hate hearing runners say that they are afraid they’ll be too tired in the race if they do anything other than easy running for their pre-race warm-up. And don’t even get me started about people who say they don’t warm-up at all! A proper warm-up will definitely not leave you too tired to race your best, even for longer distances. In fact, you’ll often feel sluggier and heavier in your race than if you had warmed-up properly (as I discovered). Properly warming up is critical to performing your best on race day. Besides putting in the quality training, warming-up might be the most important thing you can do to maximize your race results. The benefits of a good warm-up include:

  • Gets rid of residual stiffness and soreness that often accumulates overnight.
  • Prevents injury by increasing blood flow to the muscles and other soft tissues, priming them for the hard effort to come.
  • Gives you a feel for race pace so when the gun goes off you’re not going out like a maniac or spinning your wheels.
  • Gets your brain communicating with your muscles that it’s time to run fast.
  • Tells your brain it’s time to focus on running fast!
Hint: while jazzercise might make for great training, it is not a proper warm-up for your next race.

While there is no universally perfect warm-up for every runner and every race, there are some characteristics of a good warm-up:

  • It should be race specific, meaning you tailor the warm-up to the specific demands of the race you plan to run.
  • For most distances, a good warm-up will mix easy with segments of hard running.
  • A good warm-up should be well practiced in training.

Race-Specific Warm-Ups

I don’t need to tell you that racing a 5k is a totally different thing than racing a half-marathon. One is short and really intense and the other is longer and requires long-term focus and patience. Here are my recommendations for warming-up based on race length, but there are many ways to properly warm-up. If you have a different warm-up that works great, let us know in the comments. Lastly, keep in mind, these are probably best for intermediate to advanced runners. If you’re newer to running or train at a low volume  you’ll definitely want to cut back on these suggestions a bit. If you’re unsure if these warm-ups are for you, ask in the comments.

5k – 10k

For  shorter, faster races, you need to do a more thorough warm-up than you would for longer distance races. A good rule of thumb: the shorter the race, the more warming up you need to do. When you run these races, you go hard from the gun. Your body and mind need to be ready for the high intensity. Here is what I have found to be a good warm-up if you plan to race a 5k – 10k race all out:

  • Run 1-2 miles easy about 40 minutes before the start of the race.
  • After the easy running, do practiced form drills like lunges, high knees, skips, karaoke and stretches (I prefer dynamic stretches like leg swings). These should be finished with 15-20 minutes to race time.
  • After the drills and stretches, do one more mile at a moderate effort (say marathon pace + 30 seconds or so or 5k pace + 90 seconds) This should be finished up with about 5-10 minutes left until race time.
  • Finally, after your last bathroom stop, do 4 hard 30 second strides as close to the start of the race as you can.

As I mentioned above, a good warm-up routine should be well-rehearsed before race day. A great time to practice your 5k – 10k race distance warm-up is before every track workouts, interval sessions or fartleks.

15k – half-marathon

These moderately longer races, while not as intense as the shorter races, still require a warm-up. You don’t normally run these race paces cold, so your body needs to be primed to start at the appropriate pace. At the same time, you don’t need quite as much of a warm-up as you do for the shorter races. Here’s what I’ve found is an adequate warm-up for these distances:

  • Run 2 miles starting easy, but gradually increasing the intensity to close to race pace for the last half to quarter of a mile. Start this about 40 minutes before the race.
  • Do drills and stretches
  • Head to the start for 4 x 30 second strides as close to the start of the race as you can.

A great time to practice this warm-up is before your tempo runs.


The marathon is a little different. I think you have to be a pretty advanced runner to need a marathon warm-up. Most runners, even competitive ones can get away with warming up in the first mile. This was always what I did (well, for my first 3 marathons), but when my coach caught wind that I didn’t warm-up for marathons, he didn’t waste time to tell me I needed to do one. If you do anything, probably 10-15 minutes starting easy and building to race pace will be enough.  As someone who has bonked in the marathon in the past, I would skip the strides. When we run fast, even for short bursts it tells your body to burn glycogen (sugar) as your main energy source. If you recall from our original Fight the Bonk post, for marathon racing we need to preserve glycogen to avoid bonking or hitting the wall. So anything that tells our body to skip fat burning and only burn glycogen should be avoided before a marathon.

Have you ever had a bad race because you didn’t properly warm-up? Do you have a tried and true warm-up routine that works for you? Do you warm-up for marathons? Tell us about your warm-up experiences!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I am a big believer in warmups – except for the marathon. I do not do any warm up for that other than walk to the starting area and some stretching.

    What I really like about your 5k-10k warm up is the amount of time before the race. I often run a couple of miles easy at home before I head to a race. Why? It is easier to get it in if I do it there as opposed to in the midst of hundreds or thousands of runners. Then I just do the shorter stuff, strides and drills before the race. It works well for me.

  2. A big takeaway from USATF Coach training was that warmups and cool downs are NOT optional! And I distinctly remember uncomfortably shifting in my chair when I heard that, since the race where I sustained my knee injury last year was a fun run and–you guessed it–I totally phoned in the warmup. I think I did ten leg swings on each side, ran for five minutes and then hopped in the port-a-potty line.