‘The Grind Mile:’ A Progressive Warm-Up

Stay the CourseMost runners agree that training requires both easy and hard running, and that hard running is, well, hard. High-intensity workouts can be rewarding, but risky: they can propel a runner to faster results, but they are wrought with the dangers of injury and burnout. Balancing hard and easy is an art form ripe for debate.

Few runners consider how best to warm up ahead of their hard running. Warming up should:

  • prepare the body for optimal workout performance,
  • simulate the demands of racing, and
  • limit injury and burnout risk.

Easy running, stretching, drills, and short sprints are potential elements of a warm-up, but which type is best remains debatable!

Structured, hard-running workouts typically consist of an easy jog warm-up, some drills, and perhaps a collection of short strides. But then, starting the workout is often like being shot from a cannon, or diving into icy waters: a true shock to the system.

In short-distance road and track running, this is a necessary part of ready-set-go competition. But in long trail and ultra-distances, a blast-off start is seldom necessary and is often a dangerous way to start.

Instead, a progressive, moderately-intense easing-in may be more desirable. Here are two reasons why ‘The Grind Mile’ might be an optimal pre-workout warm-up.

The Whole-Body Ramp-Up: Easing in with The Grind Mile
When running, the brain activates body systems based on the demand at the moment as well as perceived need. Anxiety and pre-race nerves–and the fast breathing and high heart rates that come with it–is evidence that the body prepares ahead of time. Drastic shifts into hard running potentially over-stress the brain and muscles, making them work harder than is necessary.

But these jarring shifts also train the brain to ‘over-prepare’ for subsequent workouts and races. Then, on race day, a body and brain accustomed to overdoing it may feel too good early on, but race unsustainably hard for a multi-hour competition.

Teaching the body to gradually ramp up may keep all systems more relaxed and conserve precious energy. But this will only occur if the body is allowed to gradually ease into more intense activity.

The Grind Mile allows for this easy, relaxed, progressive, whole-body build-up. By slowly ramping the effort, the nervous, metabolic, and endocrine systems learn to function more efficiently–with less stress–than the standard shot-from-a-cannon approach. The Grind Mile also allows gradual loading of physical structures, allowing muscles, tendons, and joints to ease into fast, hard running with minimal strain.

Likewise, this approach is mentally easier. Drastic shifts to hard running require correspondingly drastic spikes in heart rate. This spike can cause the first rep of an interval session to feel difficult, painful, and unsustainable. The progressive build-up in to hard running in The Grind Mile allows for both a physical and mental adjustment to ‘go time.’

For ultra-distance runners, this is more specific to late-race surges, which are seldom high-intensity bursts, but rather progressive–and sustainable–cut-down efforts late in the race.

The Grind Mile as a Mechanical ‘Pre-Flight Check-List’
Ever wonder why commercial pilots run a pre-flight checklist? Most have been pilots for several decades. Don’t they just know what to do?

Although the pilots are experts, it is all too easy to overlook minor details early on that may loom large once in the air. Thus, the pre-flight checklist is a fail safe to ensure that all aspects of the plane are operational prior to taking flight.

The Grind Mile allows for the similar checklist experience for runners. While engaging in a progressive, multi-system ramp-up, it allows runners to check in with the fundamental ‘fast-stride’ elements, pre-workout:

That’s a lot of factors to think about, but The Grind Mile allows you to spend perhaps a minute integrating each of those elements over a progressive mile-long, tempo effort. This enables you to systematically assemble and ‘get the feel’ of whole-system efficiency over a long interval. And like the pre-flight checklist, the craft is fully operational and ready to fly into a hard workout!

The Grind Mile: Step By Step
Very simply The Grind Mile consists of a progressive, one-mile interval, gradually increasing in effort and speed from easy to threshold effort, over the course of a mile. For example a runner who easy runs at a heart rate of 130 beats per minute would gradually build up to his or her threshold heart rate of 170. Ideally the progression occurs such that 170 is achieved only in the last quarter mile. Thus, as each quarter mile passes, average heart rate may be 140, 150, 160, and finally 170. By pace, this could be quarter-mile splits that cut-down five to 15 seconds per quarter (depending on individual fitness and ability).

However, the exact speed or splits of the mile should not be fretted over. The mental effort of The Grind Mile should be equally relaxed and progressive, with gentle increases in effort over the course of the mile, allowing the mind to ease into the burn of the real workout to follow.

“Grind it Out” to Optimal Performance
The Grind Mile is a perfect middle ground between the easy jog and hard interval: fast enough to demand stride accountability, early enough to prioritize and establish maximum efficiency, and easy enough not to detract from the meat of your workout.

When complimented by a few of your favorite drills and strides, The Grind Mile can provide a smooth transition into hard running, lead to optimal form and faster workouts, and result in more sustainable and fast racing!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you do to warm up ahead of a speed workout or other hard running?
  • Do you have a ‘pre-flight checklist’ which reminds you to check in with the various elements of an efficient stride during your warm-up?
  • What is the slowest part of your body to warm up ahead of hard running?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.

There are 6 comments

  1. 00joeuhan

    Most runners "grind"….like, all the time: they'll start easy-ish, then gradually grind. While this is great to "hone" mechanics and work the whole neurological/metabolic ranges…they literally do it *every day*.

    The key is to do some progressive runs such as these – mindfully, and in small doses!

  2. @EricAshleyNJ

    I'm a big fan of progression runs, but I'm concerned about the heart rate prescription in the context of a "warmup". Threshold work is best reserved until after the body is already warm. In my opinion, for the hypothetical runner described in the article , the grind mile as described would best follow a 90 bpm to 130 bpm mile progression. That 90 – 130 mile would be the actual warmup.

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