Should You Warm-up for a Marathon?

Joanna Thompson in a black racing outfit warms up before the 2016 olympic trials marathon
Joanna Thompson warming-up before the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon.

You read our race reports and some of us talk about warming up before our marathons. You read our Olympic Trials coverage and saw pictures of the participants doing their pre-race shake-outs. We talk about warming-up for a marathon like like it’s normal, like everyone at the starting line at a marathon is out there warming up, but warming-up for a marathon is not for everyone. But that doesn’t mean it’s not for you.

You might be thinking, “Dude, I’m about to run 26.2 miles. Why would I run extra miles first? Wouldn’t I waste a mile and set myself up to bonk? And even if I wanted to warm up, how would I do that crammed into a starting corral?”

But you might be surprised and after reading this, you might see that you also need to warm-up before starting your next marathon.

Should you warm up?

If you are there to have fun and run 26 miles with your friends, the answer is definitely no. Stay in the corral with your sweats on and warm up during the first few miles of the race. For those marathoners focused on finishing, the point is to finish with a smile. If this is you, be careful to take the first ten minutes easy and then gradually find your comfortable running pace. Not doing a dedicated prerace warm-up might actually help you, because un-warmed up legs are less likely to go tearing off of the starting line.

If you’re going in it to race and push yourself to your best possible finish time, then yes you should consider doing a prerace warm-up. When the point is to be ready to run a solid race pace right off of the starting line, warming up will get your muscles and tendons ready to run. So, if you think a pre-marathon warm-up is something you need to do, what’s the right way to do one?

What’s a good warmup for a marathon?

The simple answer is that you should try to warmup by jogging for 5-10 minutes really easy, and your warmup should be done at least 10 minutes before the race starts. When I say easy, I mean easy. Don’t go much longer or faster or you’ll start breaking into your fuel reserves. And don’t do it moments before the race start and give up those ten minutes of recovery before the race. Keep your sweats on so you don’t get cold, and strip those off right at the start, so wear throw-aways if necessary.

Beyond that suggestion and in the little stuff that works for you. I like to throw in up to a quarter mile at marathon pace just so I can remind myself to not take off faster than that, but you might prefer a few light strides. Your warmup should be based on what you are doing in training when you are practicing marathon pace runs. Ideally, keep track of what you do before marathon pace runs to note what works for you and what doesn’t. Try an easy jog before pace work or a few strides and note their effects.

When planning your pre-marathon warm-up it’s important to consider the logistics of your target race. At a little local race there is plenty of room for everyone to warm up in front of the starting line or behind the starting corral. You really can do whatever you want. Even at a moderately sized local race you can warm up on a side street and walk right into the coral a few minutes before the start. At a large major race when you have to go through special entrances to the starting area, you might have a hard time finding a place to warm up and then you’ll need to get creative by warming up in place or plan to warm-up in the first mile, which means to plan to take the race out slower than race pace.

Shalane and Amy’s warm-up might be right for you, but it also might not.

What about copying what the elites are doing?

When you look at what the front of the pack and the elites are doing, they are all over the place and show that the best warm-up for you is what works for you. Some simply jog to the starting line. Others go out and run drills. Some warmup 30 minutes from the start, others right before the start and some elites walk up to the starting line without warming up at all. You’ll see all sorts of jogging, strides and drills going on in front of the starting line, But you can be sure they all practiced exactly what they planned to do on race day.

Final words of advice

Sometimes the timing of your warmup doesn’t matter at all, like when you do your warm-up and the race start is delayed by fifteen minutes. Also, if you’re not racing to win, you don’t need to rush to the starting line because your race time is your net chip race time. You can hang out in the back of your start corral warm up on a side street and not worry about getting to the front of your corral or the best possible spot on the starting line.

How about you? Do you warm-up for a marathon or plan to? Why or why not?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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  1. I like to get to the starting line ready to race, so I always warm up. It helps to shake out the limbs AND the nerves. If I’m squished into a corral, I settle for some jumping and fist pumping.

    Great to see a post from you, Jasmine. I hope all is well, or at least better. Looking forward to reading more from you soon.

  2. Before my marathon PR, I did a warm-up. It was just some light running back and forth near the start line and then a few uptempo strides. My plan was a simple 5 minutes or something just to get going but probably ended up doing closer to 10-15 because the start was delayed so I would keep doing strides to stay warm and get ready. I think that getting the body moving is helpful and makes it so getting to race pace faster is easier once it’s go time. I’m still trying to find a way to make this work at Boston this year, because clearly I won’t be running back and forth at the start line. Dynamic stretching in the corral does help though, some lunges and even bodyweight squats can help!

  3. I’m a middle of the pack runner, so I never warm up before a marathon. I also only do minimal stretching. No sense pulling something just before the gun goes off.
    I do warm up before 5K and 10K races, but in those races I am going 100% from the first step.

  4. I generally warm up for a marathon with some dynamic stretching, an easy mile with strides, and general bouncing around. This is due in part to warm up my muscles, and in part to diffuse nervous energy. It also works with my coffee to get the intestines moving!