The purpose of a warm up is to prime your muscles, your nervous system and your brain for the rigors of what you are about to undertake.  Depending on the duration and intensity, you could be putting your body under tremendous stress so you want to ease into that and make sure that you are ready for it.

There are a million different ways to warm up.  With years of trial and error, my warm up protocol has evolved from a couple of static stretches then go, through to a 10 minute, multi-faceted procedure.  This doesn’t mean it’s difficult, however.  I often hear people say they don’t have time to warm up.  If that’s the case, shorten your workout because without a warm up, your body isn’t going to reap the benefits of training.

I break the warm up into the following 4 categories:

  • General prep (warms the body temperature and gets the blood moving)
  • Activation (‘turns on’ the muscles used in the training session/ race)
  • Drills (skill work to prime the brain and CNS)
  • Intensity (prepares the heart and muscles for metabolic stress)

Each of these categories has a specific reason for being included in the warm up and the order of these activities increases in intensity.  The gradual progression of effort that comes with doing these activities in that order also primes the brain for hard work.  There’s nothing wrong with messing around and chatting to training partners during the general prep.  But as the sequence progresses more focus is required and more output essential.

A little side note: if you are reviewing heart rate data from a race or training session and you notice a spike at the start of the session, chances are you didn’t warm up properly.  After a good warm up, your heart rate will already be elevated and the starting gun will not be a shock.

Let’s dive into each element then we’ll discuss how to put them together.

General prep

This element matters least, but still needs to be completed.  You can chose any activity that will gently raise your heart rate, get you breathing slightly heavier and lift your body temperature.  The go-to exercise is a light run.  You could also jump rope, do star jumps, shadow boxing, ride a bike (increasing the speed) or get on a rowing machine or crosstrainer.  It doesn’t matter which you chose, just lift that heart rate slowly.

I usually suggest 5 – 10 minutes of general prep but this depends on the training session or race.  If you are warming up for a short, high intensity event, you will need a longer warm up.  If you are warming up for a long, slow event then this could be as short as 2-3 mins.


Activation of the muscles that will be used for the event is often overlooked but incredibly beneficial.  Helping the CNS fire the muscles you want to use will make the first few minutes of the race or training session a lot easier.  Picking big muscle groups, chose bodyweight strength exercises that will send the blood to that region.  As an example, if you’re warming up for a bike race, you want to activate the quads, hamstrings and calves.  Some simple air squats will send the blood to the legs and prepare you for what is about to occur.

Obviously you don’t want to tire the muscles before you begin, which is why I would only use bodyweight exercises.  You also don’t need too many.  3 x 10-20 air squats is all you need.

Within the activation element I often include some mobility work or loosening of any tight areas or niggles you have.   This is relatively easy after general prep and will help with range of motion during the race or training session you’re warming up for.


Skill work is the very basis for what I teach.  Sure, we can all run.  But can we run efficiently for both performance goals and injury prevention?  Drills done during a warm up will remind the CNS of the movement pattern needed and also help you become a better athlete.  The drills completed will depend on the sport being conducted but also on your own weaknesses.  Skill work deserves its own article entirely but if you are aware of your own strengths and weaknesses as an athlete then don’t be afraid to throw in some drills which address your weaknesses.

The duration of this element is very difficult to recommend.  25-45 minutes before a training session will only benefit you, however, before a race I would suggest just 5 mins of drills so you remain fresh.


The final element of the warm up before a race or training session is intensity.  This primes the CNS for firing muscles rapidly but if the athlete is focused, this will also prepare them mentally.  Realistically, the drills should also be completed with mindful focus.

The intensity element involves completing the target sport in short, fast bursts.  If you are preparing to run, start with some 30-50m sprints.  You wont need many; 2-4 will suffice.  I also like to do 2 x 50m starting slowly and gradually increasing speed to end with a sprint.

Despite trying to mimick the tougher parts of the upcoming event, I have found that even if the event doesn’t require high intensity output, warming up with an element of intensity is still of benefit.  Although they are incredibly short, there is an element of suffering in these intensity warm ups and this forces the brain to focus on the task at hand.

Constructing a warm up before training

The warm up before training doesn’t need to be energy saving like it does before a race so it can be a longer process.  In fact, it can also incorporate parts of the training session itself- especially drills.

For a training session with short, fast intervals one would require a longer warm up.  An example might include the following:

Prep 5 – 10 mins light run
Activation 3 x 10 air squats/ 3 x 10 ankle raises/ 3 x 20 second plank
Drills 5 – 45 minutes of various running drills (skill work)
Intensity 2 – 3 x 50m reps @ 80% intensity/ 2 x 60 second suicide run/ 2 x 100m gradually increasing to sprint

For a training session involving a longer or slower set the athlete could get away with a shorter warm up as the start of the session is not as taxing on the body and the gentle nature of a slower set acts as a warm up in itself.  An example might include the following:

Prep 3 – 5 mins light run
Activation 2 x 10 air squats/ 2 x 20 second plank
Drills 5 – 45 minutes of various running drills (skill work)
Intensity 1 x 50m reps @ 80% intensity/ 1 x 50m gradually increasing to sprint

Note: the decision on how much skill work to complete during a warm up is independent of the length or intensity of the training session.  It is, however, decided by the athlete’s proficiency within that sport to be undertaken.  I would suggest that even if the athlete is proficient, a small amount of skill work should still be included to prepare for the movement patterns required during the training session.

Constructing a warm up before a race

While we do want to keep the athlete fresh before a race, it is essential that a proper warm up is completed.  The structure above still holds true but the volume is simply reduced.  A short, intense race will require a bigger warm up than a longer one but the one key issue in pre-race logistics is the amount of standing around before the start gun and it is very difficult to avoid.

My suggestion is to complete the warm up as close to start time as possible but understand that heart rate and body temperature will drop as you stand around waiting for the start gun.  One option is to complete the warm up, head to the start line and jump up and down on the spot but be mindful of wearing yourself out.  Nervous energy will also be adding to the stress but just be comfortable in the fact that while your body temperature may drop, the warm up will still be of huge benefit for 30 minutes or so.  Completing the warm up as close to start time as possible is the best option.

Prep 3 mins light run
Activation 10 air squats/ 30 second plank
Drills 2 drills with laser focus
Intensity 1 x 50m reps @ 80% intensity/ 1 x 50m gradually increasing to sprint

At the risk of looking silly, the majority of this warm up can be done at the start line if you wanted.  You could also swap the drills and do them last, while you are lining up for the start.

If you understand what the warm up does (primes your body for the rigors of training/ racing) and you understand how each element assists with that then you can mix it up however you like.  As I said, there are a million different ways to warm up but throughout the evolution of me as an athlete and as a coach, I’ve found this structure to be of great benefit.

Bonus:  Breathing

More recently I’ve found that warming up the respiratory system has provided an incredible improvement in performance.  I’m still undecided on where to position a breathing element within the warm up process but I’m currently doing it at the end.

Warming up the respiratory system involves engaging the diaphragm and hyper-oxygenating the blood stream.  It also readies you for the feeling of carbon dioxide build up- which intense activity causes.  There are several breathing protocols available.  One I use is a derivation of the Wim Hof Method and involves 30 – 40 rapid, complete inhales and complete exhales which increases oxygen saturation in the blood.  Following the 30 – 40 breaths exhale completely and hold your breath for 20 – 30 seconds then slowly inhale completely and hold for another 20 – 30 seconds.  This cycle can be done once or twice during the warm up for a race or training and in my own experience makes me feel like I have a greater lung capacity!  A word of warning, however, the 30 – 40 breaths will make you feel light headed so do this sitting down.  It is perfectly healthy but will feel quite strange for a while!  By all means, if you feel uncomfortable doing it, leave this out of your warm up protocol.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your warm up.  If you are gradually warming up the body and preparing yourself for the rigors of exercise you can’t really go wrong so play around with it and see what works for you.  Good luck!