Dynamic Stretching for Runners
In the past decade, “dynamic stretching” is something that has grown across multi-sport athletes and among professionals as a crucial part of the daily workout routine. This warm-up method consists of moving through positions that are performed without a hold. Before active warm-ups became trendy, pre-workout or pre-race preparation has historically consisted of low-load, long duration stretches, like the seated hamstring stretch.
Dynamic vs. Static
Static stretching is holding a position anywhere typically from 10-60 seconds, which has been shown to have a negative effect on things like balance, agility, efficiency, motor control and power output. A wide range of studies have found that the static stretches can actually be detrimental to performance and increase your injury risk when performed BEFORE a sporting activity. (They’re ok afterward). Recent studies have shown that excess hamstring flexibility actually increases your risk of a strain or injury, and maxing out on “old-school” tests like the sit and reach are the opposite of a good indicator of ideal athleticism or performance.
So, we know that static stretching is not the best way to warm up before you exercise. What is the optimal warm-up for runners?
The classic runner “warm-up” is lacing up the shoes and finding your GPS watch, right? I admit I find that in my busy schedule, a pre-training warm-up is not high on my priority list. But it should be! If we emerge from our (commonplace) desk or delivery driver posture with rounded shoulders, a forward head, and a flexed spine, many of our muscles are already shortened. That positioning can certainly carry over into our running form if we’re not properly warmed up and don’t do exercises to counterbalance the hours upon hours of poor posture that most of us subject ourselves to! (Strength and mobility exercises to combat the desk slouch is another topic for another day…)
Experts recommend that runners begin with a little bit (5 minutes or so) of jogging or other light aerobic activity before moving into their dynamic stretching routine. Sometimes I’ll do some stairs at a slow pace if I find myself in an area where I can’t jog to warm up (for example, if I want to do a body weight circuit in a small space while traveling in a foreign country).
After 5 minutes of triggering the body to start turning the systems up a notch for exercise, then go into your dynamic stretching routine, which involves movements without pauses or holds. Dynamic stretching is NOT pulsing or bouncing movements, NOR should it be aggressively fast or performed in extreme end-range of motion. Rather, it should be a gently pain-free way to encourage loaded joint movements. Dynamic warm-ups should include a variety of movements that gently work all of the main joints of the body. Even if you’re focusing on your legs during the workout, it’s recommended to warm up your upper body and trunk too, and vice versa.
Dynamic warm-ups CAN be overdone to the point of negatively impacting performance, so most agree that 10-15 reps is sufficient for each movement. And, most agree that 6-12 minutes of dynamic movements is the “sweet spot” for the warm-up routine that follows your 5 minutes of light cardio. Make sure that you don’t perform the routine too prematurely, as there are less protective effects as more time lapses in the time frame from after you finish the warm-up to when your next demand begins (generally, 5-10 minutes is the cutoff here).
What does dynamic stretching do, physiologically?
There are numerous physiological benefits to performing a dynamic stretching routine. Without getting too deep into the mechanisms, when performed correctly, the movements work to increase body temperature and circulation, activate the nervous system, improve body awareness, increase range of motion, and enhance potential power output and muscle performance when subsequent higher demands are placed on them.
What are some examples?
Most runners have either observed or tried a routine of butt kicks and high knees before a race. But there are many other exercises that can prepare you for your run or cross-training. Variety is the spice of life and you want to make sure you don’t only focus on your quads and hamstrings, but get some hip and trunk action in there as well. Here are some examples, and if you Google “dynamic stretching for runners” there are some good videos out there for the visual learners looking for more movement ideas. If you opt for some of the more advanced movements, remember that it should feel easier and much slower than a plyometric workout.
Sideways shuffle standing tall R/L
Sideways squat shuffle – stay low R/L
Standing hip swings
Walking hand to toe taps
Walking hip stretch (inner and outer thigh)
Reverse shuffle (jog backwards)
Walking lunge (can add overhead reach or twist) F/B
High knees jog
Walking knee to chest
Heel to butt kicks
Partial body weight squats
Drills with box or step (step-ups, step taps, etc)
Shoulder circles (forward/back)
Arm circles (forward/back)
Back against the wall, reach overhead without arching spine
Back against the wall, reach out to side
Squeeze shoulder blades together
Chicken wing taps
180 degree (half-circle) walk-outs in push-up position with feet or knees on ground in one spot
Trunk and Back
Kneeling cat-cow, childs pose, and other variations of “active” yoga moves without the pause
Laying on back, knees bent, rotate legs side to side
Trunk Rotations on hands and knees (1 arm at a time reaches underneath opposite side, and then rotates back to reach toward ceiling on same side)
Standing rotations with dowel or golf club on shoulders
Get creative here in coming up with movements that mimic what sport you’re preparing for. Swimmers will do a wider variety of shoulder movements in different planes. Weight lifters may want to do some body-weight renditions of what they have planned, like body-weight dead lifts and deep squats. Track athletes may want to do ground-up movements that mimic the race start. If you’re running a hilly workout, you may want to incorporate more ankle, hip and calf movements into your dynamic warm-up. The bottom line is, use dynamic stretching as a sport-specific tool to prepare your body for the increased demands of your exercise, and you’ll be surprised at how good you feel when you are ready to hit the gym, trail or road!