Getting ready for a workout reminds me a lot of getting ready for prom back in high school. Think back to that time. For me, it took five minutes to get ready and mainly involved making sure my zipper was all the way up. As you might imagine, I looked like crap.
For others, it’s an all-day thing, with a hair appointment midday before vanishing into a dressing room for an hour in the afternoon. I’m guessing it’s like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in there, where they go into a magic portal for an epic adventure. They emerge looking wondrously transformed and ready for the best evening of their lives.
In the world of running workouts, the same principles apply. Pro runners often take an hour or more to go from putting on their shoes to starting the more intense “workout” portion of their runs. Others might run for five minutes and go into the workout, with not even a zipper check. It makes sense then that the pro runners often have wondrously transformative workouts.
Workouts matter. Here, “workouts” mean any semi-structured run with moderate or hard efforts, like tempo runs and intervals. These workout days are when you go from collecting bricks for your fitness wall to actually building the wall. So if you want to develop extra-strength fitness over time, you have to do strong workouts.
There’s still a good chance you’ll feel like a pile of horse manure when starting your run. That is okay. Some of the best performances often follow the most terrible-feeling warm-ups.
But that can be daunting. Let me paint a picture that I think will resonate with most of you. The plan of the day is a workout like 6 x 3 minutes fast, and you feel like a smoldering dumpster fire. Maybe it’s an early wake up or sitting all day at your desk or having to put up with won’t-shut-his-freaking-mouth Keith on a conference call, but for whatever reason, your legs are heavy. You start running, slow paces feel nearly impossible, so you stumble through a sub-par and no-fun-at-all workout, or you bail on the run altogether.
Here’s the catch: a lot of the pro runners feel that way, too, when they start. To ensure stronger workouts, they develop a routine that they know will help them feel better when it counts.
While most people probably don’t have an hour just to get ready to workout, here are some lessons to apply to your own harder training days.
1. Make sure you start hydrated and fueled, with hydration being most important
This bullet point is written by Captain Obvious, who must have just gotten a coaching certificate. Simply put, a depleted body means a depleted workout. A 2014 review article in the journal Comprehensive Physiology found impairment in strength, power and endurance performance with dehydration, especially at levels over two percent. A 2010 article in the Journal of Applied Physiology identified blood plasma volume reduction as a primary mechanism, with others playing a role, too. Less blood volume to pump means increased cardiac strain, translating to less output at the same heart rate.
Fueling has a less direct impact, but it still can be substantial for some people. A 2013 paper in the Journal of Physiology found that reduced glycogen availability can affect muscle contractility and fatiguability through an intermediary called sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR) Ca2+ handling. Lots of good Scrabble words there.
Glycogen is complex and debated, while the literature on hydration is less so (but it still is! Check out the book Waterlogged by Dr. Timothy Noakes to learn more). For most athletes, it’s best to keep it simple to avoid feeling needlessly lethargic on runs. I recommend that athletes have 12 to 16 ounces of fluid in the 60-75 minutes before workouts, with variance for background and body type. And when it comes to fuel, just don’t do intense workouts in the middle of a fasting period, or right after a triple-decker burrito from the office food truck.
2. Limit pre-run static stretching. Instead, do a dynamic warm-up.
This point deserves its own article, so I won’t cut corners and try to go over all the literature here. The basic point as described by a 2015 review article in the Research in Sports Medicine journal: “Acute stretching can reduce running economy and performance for up to an hour by diminishing the musculotendinous stiffness and elastic energy potential.” Meanwhile, dynamic movements have been shown to have some performance benefit in many studies (though it’s all over the place).
STOP! Sorry for screaming, but it’s important not to change everything you do based on this fuzzy snapshot. I have seen Olympians stretching their hamstrings on the infield before track races. It’s complex and debated, like all things outside of the deliciousness of pizza. But it’s a safe bet not to stretch like a contortionist before your run.
Instead, do a simple dynamic routine to get your blood pumping. I am partial to this 5-minute routine adapted from Coach Jay Johnson.
3. Start with a slow warm-up jog of at least 10 minutes.
There’s still a good chance you’ll feel like a pile of horse manure when starting your run. That is okay. Some of the best performances often follow the most terrible-feeling warm-ups. The warm-up jog is where you rinse some of the manure away.
As outlined in a 2015 review in the journal Sports Medicine, the warm-up has temperature-based, metabolic and neural justifications. Combined with a dynamic warm-up, a short jog will often increase range of motion and reduce perceived exertion.
4. Before doing the workout, stop and regroup, considering a psychological trigger to help you get mentally ready.
Here is the most important point for many athletes. If you jump right into a hard workout after your warm up run, there’s a good chance you feel like a car stuck in first gear. In addition, knowing that you have to immediately jump into harder efforts can make the run far more daunting at first.
Instead, reset and regroup. It’s a great time to visualize what you are about to do, or to go to the bathroom. I like athletes to have an additional psychological “trigger” that helps them reduce their perceived exertion. That can be changing into lighter shoes, taking off warm-up pants, or even splashing water on your legs and head. It’s also a great time to use other sports psychology tools like positive self talk, as outlined in this 2015 article from the journal Sports Medicine on psychological determinants of sports performance.
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You should be sweaty and loose at this point. Knowing you have a reset time of anywhere from one to five minutes could help reduce mental fatigue for some athletes. Since studies show that mental fatigue is a major way to reduce performance, most methods that make undertaking a workout less cognitively demanding are good.
5. Do some dynamic movements and a couple strides at the fastest pace you will go in the workout with full recovery
Now, it’s time to rock (or rap, if that’s more your style). Do a few skips and bounds, possibly a few seconds of high knees and quick feet. The goal is to prime the neuromuscular system for what comes next. Off an easy jog, do 2 to 4 fast strides of 10 to 15 seconds with 1 minute easy recovery. Pre-workout strides might have a slight performance benefit (~one percent was noted from one study reviewed in yet another, different 2015 article in Sports Medicine. 2015 Sports Medicine is the 1927 New York Yankees of warm-up physiology articles). But the biggest advantage of the strides might be mental.
Usually, you’ll feel like a new person at this point. Your legs will feel more springy, and the workout effort won’t feel so daunting. Relax for another minute or two, then ease into your workout, always erring on the side of a more relaxed start.
Do that, and you may not become a pro, but you’ll feel a lot more like a pro. And there’s no empowering running sensation quite like going fast and feeling good.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.