Ask the Coach – Warming up Before a Run

Ask the Coach – Warming up Before a Run

Megan asks: Any tips for warming up my legs before a run? My shins/front of my ankles get tight and sore through the first 3 miles.
Before I get into some warm-up exercises, let’s think about why we warm-up before a run. The short answer is that we warm-up to prepare our body for the activity we are about to perform.

1) We want to get blood (nutrients) to the muscles before our activity
2) We want to slowly increase the range of motion of the muscles
3) We want to get the muscles we will be using firing properly.
So how do we warm-up? I’m sure over the years we’ve all had different routines thrown at us. I remember doing a lot of jumping jacks in PE class. We stretched quite a bit in Taekwondo. But what should we really do? If we are running, do we stretch? Walk? Just start running?

Here’s what I think about warming-up. I think the most effective way to warm-up is to do what is lately called “dynamic warm-ups” paired with neuromuscular adaptation exercises. So really all that means is a moving warm up – not sitting and stretching (that would be static), and the neuromuscular part is getting your brain to tell your body which muscles to activate and how. There are many different muscles in our legs so we want them all to function properly, especially when we put stress on them from running. Here’s a nice explanation on why we want to
warm-up properly by Bobby McGee, one of running’s elite/expert coaches.

So how do we go about doing this?
Neuromuscular Adaptation Exercises
First, plan to spend somewhere around 10-15 minutes with your warm-up. Start with neuromuscular adaptation exercises. If you’ve ever been in physical therapy due to an injury, you’ve probably done some of these –  the therapist was helping you retrain your body to use muscles properly. An example of this would be to activate the quad. Stand on on leg with your other leg about a foot or so off the ground. Point your toe outward slightly and straighten the knee. Hold for about 7 seconds. Do three sets, with only a few seconds between sets. These exercises aren’t meant to be vigorous, they just get your brain to pay attention to the muscle as the muscle is about to be used.  One I like to do is a leg swing – I do this in front of a mirror if I can (to make sure my heel isn’t kicking out). Slow but relaxed leg swing to get the hip flexor activated. You’ll probably want to do your quad, glutes, hamstrings, soleus (calf), and your abs (your transverse abdominus – TVA). For that one just suck in your belly button and try to press it all the way back to your spine and hold for a few seconds. 

Dynamic Warm-ups
So now you’ve spent a few minutes activating your muscles that you will engage in your run, let’s get them warm-up dynamically. Here we want to go through a short set of exercises that utilizes a variety of muscles and planes (forwards/backwards, side to side, etc). Here is a quick basic sequence that I will often use, taking about 20 steps with each exercises:
1) arm swings – across your body with arms straight palms down and then opening wide with palms up
2) heel walking – walk on your heels with toes as high as possible
3) toe walking – walk as high as you can on your toes
4) marchers – high knee walking
5) butt kickers – kick your rear as you walk
6) soldier march – kick your leg straight out in front of you about waist high, kind of like a russian army march.
7) grapevine – if you know the dance step you are moving sideways with the trailing foot (left foot if I’m moving right) alternating in front and then behind. Make sure to go in both directions
8) hip rotation – lift your knee and rotate your knee outward or inward opening up your hips. You can do this while walking or standing still.

Here’s a link to some pictures of some of these exercises (and more)!
So to Megan I would recommend the heel and toe walking, and to especially get the soleus activated. 

She can also do some toe tapping. Additionally, we engage our upper body and core when we run so it can’t hurt to do a few upper body activations (like the lats) and dynamic warm-ups. These exercises also make great “warm-down” or “cool-down” exercises instead of static stretching. For example, my hamstrings are often tight and the soldier march loosens them right up after a run!

If you are limited in time for your workout, shorten your run but don’t skip these exercises! They will help program your body and muscles into the proper patterns and motions needed for your sport.

For a thorough explanation and description of many exercises can be found in Bob Seebohar‘s Ebook: Neuromuscular, Dynamic and Functional Exercises for Athletes (click on the books/DVD link from his website – for $9.99 it’s got a great amount of information).

How do you warm-up for your workout? Please leave your comments below.  If you have other questions that you would like to see answered in the ‘Ask the Coach’ column you can post them in the comment section. You can also contact Coach Nicole on facebook, twitter or via email at

Coach Nicole is the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at

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Nicole Odell


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