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Feb 14, 2023

Christo van Zyl, a Sport Scientist in the Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI) at the University of Pretoria, shares valuable advice and a few great warm-up exercises to prepare for the Bestmed TuksRace 2023.

“Make sure you warm-up properly or you will get injured” – a statement heard at nearly every event where a mom, dad or coach has pre-race chats with their kids. A statement that has been disproven time and time again. While it is true that longer more pliable muscles can reduce the risk of injury, this cannot be achieved with a single stretching session right before your race. These adaptations need time to happen. 

How dare I promote warm-ups and still say it does not stop you from getting injured?

While there are plenty of benefits to warming up in a structured way, acute injury prevention is not one of them. Probably a better and more accurate motivation for consistently running a structured warm-up before a main set and race day is for the performance benefits it provides acutely. Yes, we have all heard the stories of athletes who were late to an event and went on to race personal bests (PBs) and even records without any form of warm-up. Truth be told, when pushed for time, athletes can get away with minimal warm-up. This, however, is only true for race day. Away from the crowds and cameras when work needs to be done consistently day in and day out, athletes go through very extensive warm-ups to make sure that all the basics are covered. This leads to long-term performance gains and reduced risk of injury. Therefore, by warming up in a structured manner consistently, these athletes gave themselves the best opportunity to get away with not warming up on race day, when time is an issue, and still run record times.

“Okay, so I will just warm-up during training and skip it completely on race day.” Here is why this is not the case…

The warm-up has many benefits when done right. Muscle imbalances are addressed, joint range of movement is improved and movement mechanics are facilitated. Diving into some of the physiology behind a structured warm-up (don’t worry, this won’t be some paper that I write trying to impress you with all the fancy scientific words), we find that the long-term performance and injury reduction mechanisms associated with warming up can be attributed mostly to increased temperature within the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments). This increase in temperature is due to a combination of increased fuel metabolism within the active muscles, as well as the friction of the contracting muscles. Elevated body temperature can lead to various positive acute adaptations. Warmer muscles and increased internal body temperature produce faster, more powerful contractions, nerve impulses are facilitated and haemoglobin releases more oxygen, which means greater oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange in the muscles. As a result of this carbon dioxide build-up, faster deeper breaths are stimulated, enhancing gas exchange in the lungs. This means more oxygen diffuses into the blood, while more carbon dioxide diffuses out of the blood. Muscular pliability is also increased which means decreased muscle damage and thus less muscle soreness following a workout. All of the above-mentioned are acute adaptations, which mean better performance on the day. Alongside the performance “gains,” the warm-up offers an environment where you as an athlete can start preparing mentally for the race. Better focus and a stimulated nervous system allow the body to react to uncontrollable circumstances like stepping in a ditch, tripping or an accidental collision at a packed starting line.

Other non-thermogenic responses include increased blood flow, improved muscular coordination through repeated movements, better range of motion and fewer overall imbalances. The combination of these could lead to a reduction in injury risk in the long term.

I’m convinced! But where do I start?

The best place to start is to understand how to structure a warm-up. There are a couple of components that need to be included in a warm-up to ensure all the wonderful things mentioned above are in place. These can be covered over the course of a week or all in one session. As long as they are addressed regularly, they will provide a good foundation to build your main sets on (and hopefully that PB on race day). The six components are:

1. tissue quality

2. activation

3. corrective exercises

4. thermogenic

5. stretching

6. neural preparation.

1. Tissue quality

Using massage techniques before training sessions can begin to repair soft tissue damage from previous sessions and get the muscles ready for the subsequent action. The most readily accessible example of this is foam rolling. It is also not uncommon to have a light rubdown in place of foam rolling, but who has extra people hanging around just to provide a pre-session rubdown?

Foam rolling

  • Apply pressure onto the target muscles by using your body weight on top of the foam roller.
  • A general rule of thumb is to apply the most pressure when rolling toward the heart.
  • Specific muscle groups to target include the upper back, gluteus (buttocks), hamstrings, quads and calves.
  • For a more specific pressure point, you can use a ball of different sizes really to dial into that one spot that has been on your mind all day.


2. Activation

As with any collaboration, you will often find dominant and non-dominant role players working together. The muscles are no different. A reliance on the dominant or overactive muscle groups can lead to imbalances. This makes activation of these weaker stabilising muscles essential when trying to maximise performance. Activation can also act as a way to prepare the main muscles involved during the planned activity for what is to come. Squats, lunges and glute bridges target the larger muscle groups of the legs and prepare them for the run to follow.

Bodyweight squat

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and move your hips towards the ground by bending your knees.
  • Point your toes slightly out and make sure your knees track towards your toes and not inwards.
  • Keep both feet entirely planted on the ground throughout the movement.



  • Stand with your feet together, take a big step forward with one leg, and bend down so that your knee in the front is directly over your toes of your front foot.
  • Point your toes of the front foot slightly outwards and make sure your knee tracks towards your toes.
  • Push off your front leg to get back to the starting position.


Glute bridges

  • Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet planted firmly on the ground.
  • Lift your hips off the ground by squeezing your glutes (buttocks).
  • Your hips should form a straight line with your shoulders and knees.
  • Lower your back to the ground in a controlled manner.


3. Corrective exercises

Corrective exercises address movement restrictions currently in place. Among others, they focus on range of motion (ROM) and include various stretches. These are useful to use in a warm-up as when an athlete is learning the correct movement pattern, muscular coordination is improved through repeated movement patterns. Corrective deep squats single-leg Romanian deadlifts (RDL) and single-leg glute bridges address the most common problems from repetitive long-distance running. This includes tight hips and ankles, poor strength of smaller muscles around the knee and overall weak gluteus medius muscles. 

Deep squat corrective

  • Reach over and grab your toes.
  • Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend your knees and move your hips to the ground by bending your knees.
  • At the bottom of the squat, lift one arm overhead and then the other arm, and stand up.
  • Point your toes slightly out and make sure your knees track towards your toes and not inwards.
  • Keep your entire foot planted throughout the movement.


Single leg RDL

  • Stand with your feet together and hinge forward at your hips with one leg moving straight back behind you.
  • Try to form a straight line with your back foot, your hips and your shoulders.
  • Keep a neutral spine and return to the starting position.


Single leg glute bridge

  • Lie on your back with one leg bent up and planted firmly on the ground, and the other leg straight out so that your thighs are in line.
  • Lift your hips off the ground so that your hips are in line with your shoulders and knees.
  • In a controlled manner, return to the starting position.


4. Thermogenic

Thermogenics is increasing soft tissue temperature during a warm-up. If done correctly, you should be sweating lightly, which indicates that the body's cooling system has been activated. Your heart rate should be elevated and you should be breathing slightly heavier than normal when done with this component.

High knees

  • During a running motion, lift the legs considerably higher to the point where your thigh is parallel to the ground.
  • Alternate your legs at an increasing speed as time progresses.

Short-distance runs at different intensities

  • Run between two points or two cones for a considerable amount of time. 

5. Stretching

Stretching is the lengthening of muscle fibres to improve range of motion. Dynamic stretching is a form of stretching where there is constant movement through a ROM. This has been shown to be the most effective stretching technique for use during warm-ups. There are so many of these stretches, so I am just going to list that that I am personally a big fan of.

"World's Greatest Stretch"

  • Keep your back leg straight while lunging forward as far as possible.
  • Place both hands on the ground on the same side of your front leg.
  • Drop the elbow that is closest to the front leg to the ground.
  • Lift the same arm to the roof by rotating your body.
  • Finally, lean onto your back leg and stretch the hamstring of your front leg by straightening it out completely.
  • Return to the starting position.



  • Start in an upright position.
  • Bend over to put your hands on the ground without bending your knees (like a hamstring stretch).
  • Start walking forward with your hands until you get to a position that is similar to that of a push-up.
  • Now walk your feet towards your hands, keeping your legs straight the whole time.


Leg swings

  • Stand upright and hold on to a fixed structure (if balance is an issue).
  • Swing one leg forwards and backwards in a controlled manner.
  • Increase the ROM with each swing ever so slightly as to elicit a stretch feeling with each swing.


6. Neural preparation

These include any exercise that acutely enhances muscular force output. This means doing exercises that require rapid movement that allows for facilitated communication between the brain and the muscles. This should ultimately lead to muscles that are able to contract in a more synchronised fashion at a faster rate (we want this to be able to run faster).

Squat jumps

  • Stand with both feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend down and jump up as high as you can.
  • Bend your knees upon landing to absorb as much impact as possible.
  • A good landing is as soft as possible.



  • Stand with both feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Jump forward and land on both feet.
  • Bend your knees upon landing to absorb as much impact as possible.
  • A good landing is as soft as possible.


Single leg jumps

  • Stand on one leg and jump up as high as you can, driving your knee into the air.
  • Bend your knee upon landing to absorb as much impact as possible.
  • A good landing is as soft as possible.
  • Repeat with the other leg.


There is no right or wrong way to get through these components, as long as they are all addressed in some form or fashion throughout a training week.

Hopefully by now the old-fashioned thinking of “we should warm-up not to get injured” is no longer your first thought when convincing yourself to warm-up. Rather, warm-ups should be seen as an integral part of training, where you get to work on specifics that very seldom get addressed within your main set. Working to structure warm-ups in this fashion not only makes the session more structured and thus more enjoyable, but also decreases the risk of injury in the long-run.



McGowan, C.J. et al. 2015. Warm-up strategies for Sport and exercise: Mechanisms and applications. Sports Medicine, 45 (11), pp. 1523–1546. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-015-0376-x.

Bishop, D. 2003. Warm-up II. Sports Medicine, 33 (7), pp. 483–498. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200333070-00002.

Joyce, D. & Lewindon, D. 2022. High-performance training for sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Inc.

Christo van Zyl, MSc Sport Science (University of Pretoria):

Sport Scientist at Sport, Exercise Medicine and Lifestyle Institute (SEMLI)

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