Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 1 Nov 2002 17:28:23 -0500

Warming Trends


My runs have doubled in length since last November. Which sounds better than saying I climbed from 30 to 60 minutes. Which also sounds better than saying the runs grew in distance by just a few miles a day.

A year-long hip pain finally went away last fall. This let me reclaim the best part of running, which had gone missing for too long while the runs had been too short.

Running can feel good, but not right away. Getting into the flow of the run takes time.

That's the warmup phase, when you shift from one form of inertia (resting) to another (moving). The transition takes time, more time than than some of us allow.

Running grants its physical benefits quickly -- most of them in the first 10 to 20 minutes, according to Dr. Kenneth Cooper of Aerobics fame. Certainly we can do most of the necessary exercising within a half-hour a day.

But running is more than an exercise. And what makes it a hobby, an athletic event, a relaxation-meditation period, lies in longer daily distances. I contend (based on no research but lots of experience) that the time beyond a half-hour is what makes running worth doing and makes us want to come back the next day for more of the same.

That's because if we stop after 10 or 20 or even 30 minutes, we haven't yet fully warmed up. We haven't yet gotten to the best part.

This part begins at the point where pure exercise ends. If we run the first half-hour to benefit our body, then we run the next half-hour for the good of our mind, heart and soul.

Most people can run three miles in 30 minutes or less. That's long enough to get through the warmup and into the real running.

Again with no science but much observation to back me up, I see three miles as the addiction point. Once new runners reach it, they're likely to get hooked.

By "warmup" we're not talking about stretching or other drills, which serve other needs besides warming up the muscles and working up a sweat. We aren't talking about walking, though it's a worthwhile pre-warmup.

The best way for a runner to warm up is to run. How you run then, and for how long, depends on what kind of day it is: a long one, a fast one or a normal one.

LONG DAYS: Stay Cool

It's my privilege and pleasure to stay regularly in hotels near race starting lines. Early on raceday I pull back the shades, look down and see runners already pacing the streets -- long before marathons and halves.

Many a runner can't sit still before a race, but very few need any running warmup before a race this long. If you train triple-figure mileage each week and plan to contend for a prize, warm up a little. If not, save your steps; you'll need them all later.

Start running -- slowly -- when the gun sounds. Treat the first few miles as your warmup time.

(In fact, it could be more than a few miles. The best advice I ever heard about running marathons is to divide the distance into three parts. Treat the first third as your warmup, the second third as the place to do your strongest running, and the final third as where you hang on with whatever you have left.)

This warmup phase is a small part of the whole race. Any time "lost" early will come back to you later. Any time "gained" from starting warm, and likely too fast, will melt away later.

FAST DAYS: Start Hot

The running classes that I teach include short simulated one-mile races. The students may spend more time warming up than racing, which brings up the worried question, "Won't we be tired out before the race starts?"

Better to be a little tired, I tell them, than a lot tight. They learn the value of warmup in a session of two separate miles at 5K pace. Almost invariably the second one is faster -- and feels smoother and easier.

Think about what happens on a normal day's run. You're awkward at first, your legs are stiff, your breathing is ragged.

After five to 10 minutes, sweating starts. Another five or 10 minutes later, your legs loosen and breathing eases.

You're almost ready for race pace -- but only after challenging your legs and lungs at that pace with a few stride-outs lasting 20 to 30 seconds apiece. All these preliminaries might last 20 to 30 minutes.

Now think how you would have felt if the racing had lasted less than a half-hour. A 5K or shorter race would have been awful. You still wouldn't be warmed up at the finish line.

NORMAL DAYS: Warm Slowly

The year of hip pain taught me that my longtime practice of reaching the day's full pace (such as it was) within the first 100 steps wasn't working anymore. The pain eased after I slowed my starts to little more than a walk.

Kenyans gave me permission to do this. In full flight these runners are awesome to behold.

Yet I've seen them start their morning runs at a shuffling pace that even I can match (for a few minutes). I've never seen anyone so fast start so slowly.

The Kenyans don't stay slow. They work the pace up -- way up -- as they warm up.

You must add multiple minutes to their pace to arrive at mine. But their pattern works for me too. The laughably slow start usually leads to faster, smoother, easier running later.

I don't expect my best running of the day to arrive until the second half-hour. But it's well worth the wait.
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