How to warm up for a run — 5 running coach-approved exercises

a woman leaning into a side lunge on a running track
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

One of the reasons running is so popular is because it is such an accessible and affordable hobby to take up. However, making sure you are taking good care of your body so that it can perform at its best and avoid injury is essential. 

When searching for ways to avoid running injuries, you will hear time and time again that you must warm up properly before setting off for a run. You may also have access to helpful warm-up advice inside one of the best running apps.

But if you're after more guidance, we’ve consulted a professional run coach — elite runner and run coach, Helen Gaunt — to nail down the perfect pre-run warm-up and the importance of incorporating warm-up exercises into your pre-run routine. 

5 running coach approved exercises 

Warming up before a run is crucial for priming your body and reducing the risk of injury. It gets your heart pumping faster, which means more blood flows through your body. This helps deliver more oxygen to your muscles which will help you to perform at your best during the run. Here are Gaunt's five essential warm-up exercises.

1. Donkey kick

an illustration of a woman performing donkey kicks

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • Start on your hands and knees, with your wrists directly under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Engage your core and keep your back flat.
  • Lift one leg up behind you, keeping the knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Push your foot upwards toward the ceiling, focusing on engaging your glutes. Keep your hips square and avoid arching your back
  • Lower your leg back down to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Trainer tips:
Gaunt tells us that donkey kicks are a useful move to engage the glutes and fire up the gluteus maximus, minimus and medeus muscles pre-run for increased power. She recommends incorporating a medium-strength resistance band for more intensity to build strength with this move. 

2. Fire hydrants

an illustration of a woman performing fire hydrants

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • Start standing or kneeling down. Lift one knee out to the side, keeping it bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • Lift your knee as high as possible while maintaining control and stability through your core.
  • Lower your knee back down to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Trainer tips:
Gaunt explains that fire hydrants are a helpful exercise to open out the hips/pelvis and they also activate the glutes. You can also perform this warm up move with a medium strength resistance band for greater impact.

3. Calf raises

an illustration of a woman performing calf raises

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, ensuring your weight is evenly distributed. Engage your core and keep your spine aligned.
  • Slowly lift your heels off the ground, rising up onto the balls of your feet.
  • Hold at the top for a moment, then lower your heels back down to the ground.

Trainer tips:
"Calf raises prepare the feet, ankles and calves by warming up the muscles and strengthening up for greater foot control, encouraging you to push onto the forefoot when you run," explains Gaunt.

Warming up your calves properly is important to help guard against injury. This can be done on a step to allow full heel drop range, with weights in the hands to build strength, or on single feet to isolate each side .

4. Lunges

an illustration of a woman performing lunges

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips.
  • Take a large step forward with one foot, bending both knees to lower your body toward the ground. Keep your front knee directly above your ankle and your back knee pointing toward the floor.
  • Lower until your front thigh is parallel to the ground, ensuring your torso remains upright.
  • Push through your front heel to return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side, alternating legs.

Trainer tips:
Lunges slow down the running action," says Gaunt, "This is a useful compound move that fires up the glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors and quads." You can build this as a walking lunge going forward, backward, or sideways. 

Or progress to the running man move where the foot tracks forward and backward without touching the floor, lifting the knee up at the front and then raising the foot with knee bent behind, moving the arms in alternation.

5. Leg swings

an illustration of a woman performing leg swings

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • Stand next to a wall or sturdy object for support. Shift your weight onto one leg and slightly bend that knee.
  • Swing the opposite leg forward and backward in a controlled manner, focusing on a full range of motion. Keep your torso upright and engage your core for stability. 
  • Repeat for the desired number of swings, then switch to the other leg.

Trainer tips:
Gaunt tells us that leg swings help to mobilize the hip flexors and warm up the hamstrings to help stretch out your stride length from the get-go and will be great pre-race. You can do this with support for greater range.

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Jessica Downey
Fitness Writer

Jessica is an experienced fitness writer with a passion for running. Her love for keeping fit and fueling her body with healthy and enjoyable food quite naturally led her to write about all things fitness and health-related. If she isn’t out testing the latest fitness products such as the latest running shoe or yoga mat for reviewing then she can be found writing news and features on the best ways to build strength, active aging, female health, and anything in between. Before then she had a small stint writing in local news, has also written for Runners World UK (print and digital), and gained experience with global content marketing agency, Cedar Communications.

Born and raised in Scotland, Jessica is a massive fan of exercising and keeping active outdoors. When at home she can be found running by the sea, swimming in it, or up a mountain. This continued as she studied and trained to become a PPA-accredited magazine journalist in Wales. And since working and living in London, she splits her time between weight training in the gym, trying new fitness classes, and finding scenic running routes. Jessica enjoys documenting this on her fitness-inspired Instagram page @jessrunshere where she loves engaging with like-minded fitness junkies.

She is a big fan of healthy cooking and loves learning more about this area with expert nutritionists she has met over the years. Jessica is a big advocate for building healthy relationships with food rather than building restrictive attitudes towards it. When she isn’t eating or running she also enjoys practicing yoga in her free time as it helps her to unwind and benefits her performance in other sports.