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

Sun, 19 Mar 2006 05:49:16 -0500

Warming to the Task


(rerun from March 2003 RW)

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

You don't just step out the door and hit your stride in the first 100 steps. You must shift from one form of inertia (resting) to another (moving), and that transition takes more time than than some runners allow.

Running grants its physical benefits quickly -- most of them in the first 20 minutes, according to some of the best minds in exercise science. Certainly we can do most of the necessary exercise-running within a half-hour a day.

But running is more than an exercise. And what makes it a hobby, an athletic event, a relaxation and meditation period, a welcome time of the day, lies in longer 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.

If we stop after 20 or even 30 minutes, we've stopped short of the best part. We aren't fully warmed up.

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. A runner warms up best by running.

How much you run at that time depends on what the day holds: a long run, a fast run or a normal run. Let's talk about the last first, since normal runs are the most frequent and therefore the most important.


In my travels I often stay in the same hotels as Kenyan runners, who in full flight are awesome to behold. Yet I see them starting their morning training runs at a shuffling nine-minute-mile pace.

The Kenyans don't stay slow, of course. They work the pace up -- way up -- as they warm to the task.

I'll never be mistaken for a Kenyan. Add multiple minutes to their pace to arrive at mine. But their pattern works for me, as the laughably slow start usually allows my finish to be relatively brisk.

There's no distinct borderline separating warmup from real run. One gradually blends into the other. You may have to wait as long as a half-hour for the best running of the day to arrive.


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

Better to be a little tired, I say, than a lot tight. Think 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 settles down.

You're almost ready for race pace -- but only after challenging your legs and lungs at that pace with a few stride-outs of about 100 meters apiece. All these preliminaries might last 30 minutes.

Now think how you would have felt if the race had lasted less than a half-hour. A 5K or shorter event would have been awful. You'd still be warming up at the finish line.


If runners sometimes err on the side of too little warmup before short races, they often do too much before long ones. I see this at marathons and halves, where runners hit the streets a half-hour or more before start time.

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 -- only when the gun sounds. Treat the first few miles as your warmup time.

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

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