When middle distance coaches cluster socially or professionally, and the inevitable training talk ensues, the topics generally fall into three broad categories: training mileage, peaking strategy, or warmup routines. While these are all fun to talk about and defend, the reality is that there is no right answer to any of these discussions.
Mileage talk typically deals strictly with quantity, while quality is far more important, peaking strategy is highly individualized from athlete to athlete, and the warmup can be just about any set of sequential physical exercises that get a runner ready for the speed, speed endurance, or endurance unit of the work session without compromising force production. In all of these topics, there are many Roads to Rome and a coach just needs to pick a route that is scientifically-based and matches their coaching philosophy, and this includes the warmup routine.
The warmup is the first unit of the training session each day. Since training athletes effectively involves a planned and balanced program between the five primary physical components – speed, strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance, a good warmup should incorporate all of these themes, without being just any one of them.
The warmup should be designed to prepare the central and peripheral nervous system, the muscular system, and the metabolic functions for the rigor of the training session. Some days will be very hard, intense, and demanding throughout the session, while other days are long, but somewhat gentle with duration serving as the main stimulus.
The first steps in designing a warmup routine are matching that unit to the rigor level of the later work unit, while also making sure all five primary physical components are involved to some level, again balancing them to the session demands.
In middle distance running, intensity arcs the spectrum from the long run to flying 30 meter repeat sessions. If session intensity is the main determiner of a proper level of warmup; then it seems like a runner should have a wide range of warmup routines as well. This is probably true but is impractical. Yet, the same warmup prescribed every day does not make sense either.
A good middle-ground is to develop three separate warmup routines. They can be named whatever sounds cool, but they are distinctly different enough so that the athlete can understand the value of doing each one on any particular day, including race day.
* Coaching Resource: 800M: Successful Coaching Strategies
If a person is napping on a sunny boulder in Glacier National Park, and an approaching grizzly bear wakes up the tourist, there is no time for a warmup before fleeing to the nearest tree to climb to safety. Humans, like all animals, are hard-wired to have that kind of speedy fleeing ability. Hormones, such as adrenaline, work very well in that situation, but they do not work very well at track practice day after day.
With that in mind, any of the real intense units will require 25-30 minutes of warmup to get the runner safely and effectively ready to perform the work. These units would include max speed work, speed endurance, special endurance 1, and special endurance 2. Race day would fall into this category as well.
Aerobic work like tempo runs and vVO2 max work are not nearly as intense as this anaerobic work and some of the warmup can be cut down. This routine can be completed in 20-25 minutes.
The third level of intensity is work done at the aerobic threshold or about 70% of the vVO2 max pace. Summer base runs, recovery runs, in-season mileage days, and the long run, all fit in this group with their only difference being the duration of the activity. A sensible warmup period for this group is about 15 minutes in length. This lower intensity level stretches to incorporate all five primary physical components into the warmup.
Take speed for example. There is no real need to do that before a 90-minute long run. That is why higher velocity strides of about 80 meters after the long run are a good idea. This exercise wakes up the nervous system in a much better spot of aerobic practice. The important point is it is being done somewhere in the session.
* Additional Teaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Middle Distance
Below is an overview of the three warmup routines. A specific look at each one of the routines and a general menu of activities are shown in figures 1-3. These figures show possibilities of exercises to do for each of the warmups based on the work session theme. It will be up to the coach to arrange them in the order they like best. Insert walking and jogging between the exercise prescription sequences.
As the middle distance coach, just watch and make sure the designated warmup is done deliberately and is not merely a half-hearted attempt to move on to the real work of the day.