Getting Warmer: Uhan’s Four-Step Warm-up Routine

Stay the CourseEarly winter is here, and now is a good time to address the nebulous topic of pre-run warm-ups. What’s the best way to warm up? Why does it matter? With running warm-ups, there seems to be two camps:

  • The Extreme Warm-Up Camp – Moving, shaking, swinging, flicking, pulling, and gyrating everything for a minimum of one hour; or
  • The Just Start Running Camp – Just running, perhaps a little more slowly, to warm up.

When runners are faced with only these two options, most of us gravitate to option two. Convoluted, energy-sapping warm-ups are difficult to complete. Moreover, the benefit of the extreme warm-up seldom seems worth the time and energy.

But is there something in between? Is there a coherent, logical, and practical method to prepare our bodies to run fast, feel great, and avoid injury?

The Purpose and Importance of a Warm-Up

The act of warming up likely got its name from a collective of physical activities that make us feel warmer! That our body temperature increases is only one outcome of a multi-dimensional physiological process that should gradually bring online several body systems to optimal function. Here are those systems:

1. Internal Physiology

Physical activity requires increased activation of most of our internal physiology:

  • Cardiovascular system – Increase blood flow to active tissues, including the muscles and nervous system;
  • Nervous system – Increase electrical-chemical activation of the nerves that control our musculoskeletal system; and
  • Endocrine system – Engage hormone-enhanced body functions, which means fluid and electrolyte balance, energy mitigation, and balancing of other core body systems.

2. Orthopedic System

A properly executed warm-up helps prime our muscles and other soft tissues to move:

  • Muscles – Gain both extensibility (flexibility and ease of movement) and strength;
  • Joints and associated connective tissue, including bone-coating cartilage – Become more hydrated, which enhances a joint’s ability to absorb shock as well as move through its full, functional range; and
  • Fascia – Gains extensibility and freedom of movement.

3. Neuromuscular System

This is the nerve-plus-muscle system that creates the actual athletic movement patterns of running, including hip flexion and extension, arm swing, and the myriad other small-but-significant motions that together form a smooth, coordinated stride. A quality warm-up primes our neuromuscular system to efficiently move in the full running pattern with power and ease.

Why a Warm-Up Matters for Trail Runners and Ultrarunners

While a complete warm-up may seem unnecessary for a slow, all-day race, trail and ultrarunners in particular can benefit from a complete, multi-dimensional warm-up. For starters, the demands of trail running and ultrarunning are many, and a warm-up prepares all body systems to absorb the challenges of distance, vertical, and terrain to both enhance performance and help avoid injury.

Secondly, runners accustomed to a run-only warm-up on most days are seldom willing or able to, say, jog three or four miles as a warm-up for a trail 100 miler! A non-running warm-up will prepare your body without sapping your run-specific energy reserves.

Lastly, a quality warm-up is crucial for promoting and maintaining stride integrity. The more miles, vertical, and terrain we run, the more likely it is that we accumulate efficiency-draining stiffness. (See “Uhan’s Law of Running Thermodynamics”.) A complete warm-up is both a test and a treatment to restore your most efficient, fastest stride!

Characteristics of an Effective Warm-Up

A quality, effective, and sustainable warm-up should be:

  • Running-specific – There are many ways of getting warm, ranging from passive (indoor heat, wearing layers) to general activity. For optimal benefits to all systems, a quality warm-up should contain running-specific motions for the arms, legs, and trunk.
  • Time- and energy-sensitive – In a world of unlimited wants and limited energy, having a time- and energy-sensitive warm-up is key, as there is a fine balance between a warm-up and a workout. A quality warm-up should prepare a runner without feeling fatiguing!
  • Progressive – The up component of a warm-up requires progressively increasing activity, beginning with slower, lighter, and easier movements and ending with higher-intensity output. A thorough, complete warm-up should prepare a runner to engage at full effort.

Uhan’s Four-Step Warm-up Routine

 Alright, here are the four steps!

Step Zero: Pre-Warm-Up Mobility Assessment

Before you leave the house, be sure that your body has the requisite range of motion and movement symmetry for healthy running. Our performance-mobility series highlights six different self-assessment tests and restoration tools to ensure you possess adequate and symmetrical mobility for healthy running and injury avoidance.

Because these are static motions designed to restore joint range of motion, they aren’t technically part of the actual warm-up. However, any deficits here must be cleared before running fast or far is advisable. Do these tests and inputs before your big training commences!

Step #1: Dynamic Orthopedic

What: General muscle-tendon-joint system mobility

Intensity: Low

Details: These are dynamic stretches for the upper and lower body, as well as the trunk. The motions are generally slow, yet the positions aren’t held for more than a few seconds.

Dosage: Perform 3 sets (10 meters or 10 to 30 seconds) of each exercise.

List:

  • Knee hug and heel hug
  • Side lunge
  • Forward lunge and reach
  • Knee and foot hug
  • Arm circle
  • Neck and shoulder stretch

Step #2: Dynamic Nervous System

What: Running-specific nervous-system mobility

Intensity: Low

Details: These exercises, while similar to the first set, specifically target nervous-system tissues flowing into the legs (the sciatic and femoral nerves).

Dosage: Perform 3 sets (10 meters or 10 to 30 seconds) of each exercise.

List:

  • Toe touch in and out
  • Toe touch twist
  • Heel grab and chin nod
  • Hulk Hogan (trunk rotation plus flexed arm/extended arm)
  • Frankenstein toe touch

Step #3: Running Drills

What: Running-specific drills

Intensity: Progresses from medium to high

Details: Once the muscle and nervous systems are mobile, we promote running-specific neuromuscular facilitation using running drills. These exercises emphasize (and often exaggerate) components of the complete running stride.

Dosage: Perform 3 sets (10 meters or 5 to 10 seconds) of each drill.

List:

  • Fast feet
  • Straight-leg pull
  • High knee
  • Butt flick
  • A-skip
  • B-skip
  • Side-skip
  • Grapevine

Step #4: Strides

What: Short, progressive sprints

Intensity: Medium to high

Details: Upon completion of the dynamic-mobility exercise and drills, the cherry on top are strides. These are 10-seconds-or-less progressive sprints. They represent another exaggeration, the full running stride at peak speed. They are just long enough to put it all together, but short enough that they won’t tax the system.

Dosage: Perform 3 to 6 build-up strides of 10 seconds or less, with 30 to 60 seconds of walking rest in between.

Final Thoughts

This warm-up routine is recommended anytime fast or far running is demanded, such as fast workouts, challenging long runs, or races. For the former two, I do recommend a short amount of jogging, a mile or two, before starting this routine. If pre-race, in particular ultramarathons 100 kilometers or longer, the jog and the strides can be curtailed or eliminated in favor of the less energy-intensive aspects of the routine.

Best of all? This complete, multi-dimensional warm-up can be completed in as little as 15 minutes, making it both thorough and sustainable!

Call for Comments

  • Do you warm up before running? Or before certain kinds of runs?
  • If so, share your current warm-up routine and how it benefits you.
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.