Kate Bongiovanni—You know you’re supposed to warm up your muscles and joints before you head out for a run. But did you ever consider that the way you perform that warmup could be hurting, not helping, your run? It’s true.
New research supports what many respected coaches have known for years: The preferable pre-run warmup should include movements that are designed to activate and elongate your muscles.
“There are many reasons to warm up before exercise but a dynamic warmup combines prepping the cardiovascular, neuromuscular and muscular systems in an integrated manner,” says Bob Seebohar, an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and a USA Triathlon Level III elite, youth and junior certified coach. “It provides athletes more ‘bang for their buck’ and may also reduce the risk of injury.”
Also known as movement preparation, a dynamic warmup is comprised of exercises like squats, monster walks and hip extensions, where you actively turn on and tune in those muscles for the activity you’re about to pursue. It almost feels like a workout in itself, unlike pre-run static stretching—the practice of reaching until you hit a point of tension and then holding the stretch.
A study published in September 2010 in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretches performed before a run, especially a long run, may lower endurance performance and increase the energy cost of running. Static stretching can reduce muscle strength and muscle-tendon stiffness, which in turn impedes the run.
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Dynamic movements build intensity before the actual event and prepare the body for peak performance. You want to engage in a dynamic warmup to help prepare your body to handle the demands of the exercise you’re about to put it through, says Jessi Stensland, a former professional triathlete and creator of MovementU, an online resource and workshop series for educating athletes about moving the body efficiently and powerfully.
Stensland noticed the benefits of dynamic movements first-hand when she nearly walked away from triathlon competition in 2004. She was at the top of her game, ready to compete in the Olympic Trials, but she nearly quit after being plagued with injury and reaching rock bottom when it hurt to swim, bike and run. It was body awareness that saved her. As she puts it, “I have to give my body what my body needs,” and she latched onto the Core Performance protocol, which stresses movement preparation—or dynamic warmup—and proper form.
“They taught me immediately that if I wanted to get the most out of my mind and my body—for my cardio let’s say—I needed to work on my movement,” Stensland says. “I was a different athlete in a week simply because of what they taught me.”
She learned how to prepare her body for competition in the most fun but least painful way. Simply put, it was starting at the most basic level of a movement, like squatting, and compounding the movement so it became progressively more difficult and achieving mastery of movement execution. This resulted in the races of her life with times equal or better than her past performances—and without chronic pain or injury. Who wouldn’t want that?
“The overall goal of a dynamic warmup should be two things: to be resistant to injury and perform your best, which equals max efficiency and max power,” she says.
Stensland says these moves activate, elongate and coordinate the muscles to help you toward that end goal of being injury resistant and more efficient. The idea is to prepare the body to react to situations during the run that can cause injury, such as running on unfamiliar trail terrain or getting cut off on the track. If you train your body with dynamic movement, Stensland says, you’ll be more prepared to deal with these unforeseen obstacles at any point during the run because you’ll be warmed up and ready to respond.
Higher Quality Workouts
All of this talk about dynamic warmup is not new. Ask a coach, especially one who has worked at the collegiate or professional level, and you’ll learn it’s been integrated into training programs for decades. Bobby McGee, an endurance coach who’s well versed in running biomechanics and has improved the run times of several Olympic-caliber triathletes, praised dynamic warmup long before the 2010 study. McGee says he’s used these drills with athletes since his track and field coaching days in the 1980s.
“Dynamic warmup fires up neural patterns and recruits muscles by sensibly overloading them and forcing them into a performance mode rather than safe mode,” McGee says. When you correctly prepare your body and muscles for an activity, you’re likely to have higher quality workouts.
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While athletes of all abilities can perform a dynamic warmup, a move mistake could prevent you from activating, elongating and coordinating the muscles. Stensland warns that you could be performing an exercise that’s simply too dynamic for you at the current time or, without a watchful eye, you’d never know if you did the move right or wrong.
“One needs an individual with experience teaching the drills in the beginning and giving the athlete feedback,” McGee says. “Generally if it looks balanced, athletic, and well timed, and if it feels good and flows, it’s OK.”
No one is too old, novice or untrained to reap the benefits of a dynamic warmup. “They serve at their most basic level as an optimal preparatory activity, especially before quality workouts,” McGee says. “But most athletes I work with use them before every workout now. They have a strengthening plyometric effect, which is essential for all athletes.”
You’ve heard the saying that you can only increase your endurance until age 40, and you start losing strength even earlier, right? Slow down those age-related processes with dynamic warmup, which addresses these issues. “In studies on the differences that occur as runners age, the primary ones are loss of strength and functional range of motion,” McGee says.
"Pennies In The Bank"
As long as you set aside some time, even if it’s only five minutes, you can fire up your muscles before a workout. “It only takes five to 10 minutes before a training session and is well worth the time spent,” Seebohar says. “I find that endurance athletes are time crunched so they do not make time for dynamic warmup; it’s really a shame because the benefits are so great.”
“It’s like pennies in the bank,” Stensland says. “The more time you can do it, the better.” Now it might not be in your best interest to spend equal time warming up and running, but if you schedule the stretches into your workout time, you’ll wind up a winner.
Rather than complain about not feeling warmed up until you’re a mile or two into your run, you’ll feel good to go straight out of the gates. “Doing the exercises significantly improves your body’s joint range of motion and flexibility and allows for more ‘effortless’ running from the beginning,” Seebohar says. Want more quality runs as opposed to wishing you ran faster, harder, stronger? Go dynamic.
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The Dynamic Dozen
Take these dynamic warmup moves with you for your next run. Add one or all 12—even a short dynamic warmup is beneficial, even if it only lasts a minute. There aren’t as many rules to a dynamic warmup as you’d expect. Stensland explains that some dynamic warmup is better than none, but “the more time you can do it, the better.”
Walk forward with your weight on your heels, flexing your feet so the balls of your feet are off the ground. It’ll activate your shin muscles while stretching out your calves. Walk forward for seven seconds and repeat.
Linear Leg Swings
Swing leg forward and backward, switch legs and repeat.
Remember skipping from point A to point B when you were a kid? Same thing applies here except your focus changes from fun to running drill. Add some power to basic skipping by driving forward and aiming for a high body with each skip.
This is a variation on basic skipping, except it’s your knees reaching high and not so much your body. Drive your arms backward in sync with your skip stride while driving one knee high, with that foot almost directly under your body; continue on opposite side and repeat.
Also known as karaoke, this hip opener requires some fancy footwork until you get the hang of it. Move sideways with your arms out, and cross right over left, right behind left, right over left. Repeat by starting with the left foot first: left over right, left behind right, left over right. Move in one direction for seven seconds, switch directions and repeat.
Forward: Walk forward and swing your arms forward as you would do when swimming freestyle. Let your hips rotate and move your arms fast enough to create momentum.
Backward: Walk forward and swing your arms backward as if you were swimming backstroke. Lead with your pinkie finger and keep your palms facing out when you reach high over your head.
Start on your side with knees pulled toward your chest and top hip pushed forward a bit. Open your top hip by rotating your knee away from the ground with your feet touching. Repeat on other side.
Instead of running forward, get into your runner stance with your pelvis neutral. Kick your heel toward your butt by engaging your hamstring to pull up as you jog at an easy pace.
Using your regular walking gait, step forward with one leg while raising your opposite knee and pulling it toward your shoulder. Stand upright, grab your shin with both hands and pull close to your chest. Repeat motion with your other leg.
Move forward with a running motion, trying to raise your knees as high as you can. Bobby McGee calls this a facilitation exercise, as it mimics running but with even more motion and intensity.
Hamstring kick-outs aka monster walks
Walk forward and kick out each leg as you take a step. When your leg kicks up, bend your upper body toward it and reach your opposite hand to your extended shin or foot.
Position yourself with your feet slightly beyond shoulder width, hands behind your head. Lower into the squat position with your knees behind your toes, jump vertically and extend through your hips. Land back in the squat position.
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How to Build Your Own Dynamic Warmup
There aren’t as many rules to a dynamic warmup as you’d expect. You don’t need to include the 12 exercises featured here in every pre-run routine. You don’t need to spend a minute rotating through each move every single time—some days you might spend 10 seconds, others five minutes. It depends on how you feel. Listen to your body and evaluate how much time you can set aside for your warmup and run, Stensland says. Remember, some dynamic warmup is better than none.
What should my warmup look like? Bob Seebohar suggests that a workout consist of four exercises, with two lasting five to 10 minutes each, before running and one minute after. Start off with neuromuscular activation and dynamic exercises, which will give you the benefits of the cardio component (such as light jogging) you’re used to. Then go through your training session. Follow it up with a repeat of the dynamic exercises you started with to improve your flexibility.
How do I choose my dynamic exercises?
Seebohar suggests choosing five to eight movements to do before your training session that complement your activity. But change these up from time to time so you don’t miss exercising a muscle group.
How long should I do them? Some dynamic movements can take longer to master than others. Seebohar suggests that you want to feel comfortable performing a move before moving on, whether that’s 20 seconds or 60 seconds. Others, like heel walks, toe walks (like heel walks but on your toes) and grapevine, are prescribed for seven-second intervals.
The original story can be seen on Competitor.