10 Pre-Run Warm-up Exercises to Help You Avoid Injury

If you are like me, when you started to train for your first distance run, you didn’t give a lot of thought to it – just put on some sneakers and began running. You kept running longer distances several days a week until you could complete your goal distance. I was 53 and had rarely run more than 1-2 miles at one time in my life. Fortunately, I received a little advice along the way from runners with more experience, but no formal plan or training to get me ready. 2 months before my 1st half marathon, I had IT band issues. Part way through a run, I had extreme pain in my leg. I had to stop running and slowly limped back home. After several weeks of physical therapy, I was able to complete the half marathon but ran much of it still with some pain.  Six months later another injury – this time to my calf muscle. It had me back at the therapist for more rehab and running “down time”. This time the therapist talked to me about dynamic warm-up exercises and encouraged me to incorporate them into my pre-run routine. I did for a while but, after a few weeks, feeling good health wise, I didn’t worry too much about it, especially if I was short for time. More likely I would stretch a little and then go run. Then 4–5 months later I was back to physical therapy, this time with both calf and IT band issues. So, this time I took it a lot more seriously, reading and watching videos on the proper ways to warm-up before running. Over the next several months I incorporated advice on dynamic warm-up exercises from many sources, creating what I call the 10 x 5 x 5 pre-run warm-up routine: 10 exercises done 5 times each followed by starting all runs with an easy 5-minute run. It only takes about 5 minutes before each run for the exercises, and best of all I have not had a serious injury that has impacted training time for the past 2 years since I started using this routine. If it means a shorter run because I am limited on time, I still do the 10 x 5 x 5 routine. If I am at a race and people look at me a little funny as I go through the 10 x 5 x 5 routine, I don’t care. I would rather stay healthy and avoid injury then worry about what others think about my exercises or if my run is a little short.

Before we look at our warm-up exercises, it is important to learn the difference between the two main types of warm-up stretches: dynamic and static.

A dynamic stretch is a series of challenging motions which involves controlled, repetitive movements engaging your muscles and connective tissues. Dynamic stretching can help us run more efficiently with better form. Athletes often use a controlled dynamic stretch that progressively increases range of movement to loosen up the joints and muscles prior to a strenuous workout.

A static stretch is a deep, slow stretch, which entails a singular motion held in place for ten seconds or longer. These are the types of stretches to do when you are aiming for extreme flexibility or to work out a sore muscle group. Static stretching is often used after a run when the muscles are warmed up in order to help relax the muscle group, recover and prevent injury.

While static stretching before a run used to be the norm, more recent research has shown dynamic stretching to be better, and in fact pre-run, static stretching to even decrease performance. In a 2010 study at Florida State University, researchers demonstrated that experienced distance runners were around 5% less efficient and covered 3% less distance in a time trial if they did static stretching before the run. So, for our warm-up routine we will focus on dynamic stretches.

Note:  I am not a doctor, sports trainer, run instructor, or physical therapist.  I cannot promise that if you do the 10 x 5 x 5 pre-run warm-up routine religiously that you will never experience an injury.  What I can share is that I did a lot of reading from “experts” who know a lot more than me, and from that research have compiled this 10 x 5 x 5 pre-run warm-up routine that has worked well for me and kept me from serious injury for over two years.  During this time, I have increased my weekly mileage, set PR’s in the 5k, half marathon and full marathon and I am enjoying the process even more.  However, always consult your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

So, following are the 10 warm-up, dynamic exercises I do prior to every run.  It doesn’t matter how long or short the run, if it is an easy or hard training run, or even if it is a race – I religiously take 5 minutes immediately prior to starting the run to perform these exercises followed by an easy 5-15 minute start to my run.  It increases blood flow to my muscles and gets my body ready to perform.

  1. Front Lunge– Starting in a standing position, raise your right leg off the ground and take a giant step forward lunging toward the floor. Keep your left foot in place and lower your body so that your left knee comes close to the ground without touching it, and both your right knee and left knee form close to a 90 degree angle. Push yourself up and back to your starting position.  Switch legs leading with your left leg.  This is one rep.  Complete a total of 5 reps.
  2. Front Lunge Twist – Exactly the same as the Front Lunge, but as you take your giant step forward, twist only your upper body and arms 90 degrees toward your stationary leg (if you are raising your right leg, twist 90 degrees in the direction of your left leg.) Switch legs leading with your opposite leg.  Together this is one rep.  Complete a total of 5 reps.
  3. Rear Lunge– Very similar to the front lunge, except you take your giant step directly behind you. When you lift your right foot off the ground, take your step backward lunging toward the floor. Keep your left foot stationary and slowly lower your body so that your right knee comes close to the ground without touching it and both your right and left knees form close to a 90-degree angle.  Push yourself back up to your starting position and repeat leading with your left leg.  This is one rep.  Complete a total of 5 reps. 
  4. Rear Lunge to High Knee– This is the same motion as the rear lunge but, after lunging backward and prior to returning to your starting position, incorporate a high knee movement into the routine. So, when pushing yourself back up from your lunge, continue the movement to a high knee position, driving your non-stationary knee through to about hip height, before returning to your starting position. Completing this with each leg is one rep– complete a total of 5 reps.
  5. Side Lunge– starting in a standing position, raise your right leg off the ground and take a large step to your right about 3 feet lunging toward the floor. Keep your left foot in place and your left leg relatively straight.  Push yourself up and back to your starting position.  Switch legs leading with your left leg and stepping to your left.  This is one rep. Complete a total of 5 reps.
  6. Side Shuffle – Starting in a partially squatting position, extend your right leg away from your right side and quickly shuffle your left leg toward it. In a fluid motion, continue shuffling your right leg away from your right side and your left leg toward it until you have done this 5 times.  Still facing forward, reverse direction and move your left leg away from your left side and shuffle your right leg toward it until you have done this 5 times, returning to your starting location.  This is 1 rep – complete 5 reps.
  7. Carioca or Grapevine– This is another sideways exercise, but you will cross your legs in front and behind your body as you shuffle to a side. For this routine, shuffle your right leg in front of your left leg, then shuffle your left leg to the left, then shuffle your right leg behind your left leg and shuffle your left leg again to your left. Repeat this pattern 5 times moving to your left before moving in the reverse direction to your right. Once you have returned to your starting position you have completed 1 rep. Complete a total of 5 reps.
  8. High Knee – starting in a standing position, drive your right knee up to just past hip height and return to starting position. Switch legs and drive your left knee up to just past hip height before returning to starting position.  This is 1 rep – complete a total of 5 reps.
  9. High Knee Skip – Very similar to the high knee, but you will move forward as you complete your reps. Move forward about 15-20 feet as 1 rep.  Turn around and come back to your starting position as your 2nd  Complete 5 reps.
  10. Butt Kickers – This is basically an exaggerated running in place, lifting your heels toward your butt. Raising your heel of each foot toward your butt 5 times equals 1 rep.  Complete 5 reps.

As you finish your butt kicks your muscles should be warm and you are already in running form so start your run but remember to treat the first 5-15 minutes of any run as part of your warm-up.  Take those minutes at a slower, easy pace, to get your body acclimated to the running motion.  If you are participating in a race, obviously do this easy 5-15-minute pre-run prior to the start of the race.  In addition, for a 5k or 10k race, you should also incorporate 5 strides (gentle sprints reaching about 80 percent of your maximum speed) over a distance of 50 yards each.  But if you are doing a training run, take the first 5-15 minutes a bit slower than your training pace.

So remember the 10 x 5 x 5 pre-run warm-up – 10 exercises for 5 reps each.  It should take no longer than 5 minutes to complete all 10 exercises.  Do it immediately before you begin each run.  Follow this by running your first 5 minutes at a slow, easy pace and you should be well on your way to helping yourself stay healthy and injury free.  Good luck and good running.

Share your results of incorporating the 10 x 5 x 5 into your pre-run warm-up.  Do you have other exercises you incorporate in your pre-run warm-up, let us know.  We would love to hear from you. See you on the trails.