Traditionally, we’ve been told that static stretching is an effective method at preparing our bodies for exercise, reducing our risk for injury and improving joint flexibility.
Sounds great right? We’ve been doing this for years – go to any gym or track today and you’ll see runners and trainees stretching their hamstrings on a bench or calves on a step.
However, recent research suggests otherwise.
The idea of a flexibility-based warm-up has been proven to be ineffective at preparing the body for exercise and actually detrimental to subsequent power performance.
A recent review article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, concluded that static stretching has negative effects on muscle strength and explosive power - so what’s the better alternative?
Static stretches are an important component of strength and conditioning programs, but its placement in the warm-up should be reconsidered. Having said that, the focus of the warm-up for runners needs to change.
A more appropriate warm-up for running should focus on actually preparing the body for that tough workout by increasing your internal body temperature while priming the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
The warm up should contribute to the development of balance, coordination, running mechanics, core strength, tissue quality and muscle activation.
A proper warm-up for runners should be functional in that it will prepare the body physically and mentally for the intense workout or race ahead.
An active warm-up will enhance performance by improving:
Joint range of motion
Oxygen uptake due to increased oxygen delivery to the working muscles and via an enhanced utilization of oxygen from the blood
Speed and force of muscle contractions due to the fact that nerve impulses travel faster in a warm muscle compared to a cold muscle
Your 6-Phase Functional Warm-Up Protocol for Runners
Here is a structured functional warm-up protocol I recommend to all runners of all levels.
1) Soft Tissue Work
Use this portion of the warm-up to foam roll (foam roller, hockey ball, The Stick, etc.) tight muscles. Focus on your arches, calves, quadriceps, groin and glutes. I’m not a fan of foam rolling the IT Band as its tightness has been suggested to me by my peers to be advantageous at storing elastic energy, contributing to a more efficient running stride. Essentially, I’ve been told to look at the IT Band as a slingshot, helping propel the leg forward with every stride. Spend 60-120 seconds per tight muscle.
2) Muscle Activation Drills
Due to the nature of the running stride (especially at slow paces), the body and joints move through a particular range of motion over and over again.
This highly repetitive nature results in common muscle imbalances to form in runners compared to non-runners. Shirley Sharmann, in Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes, writes that runners typically have overdeveloped hamstrings and typically weak hips. Weak hips can lead to a host of injuries, not only seen at the hip joint, but also at the knees.
Runners with weak gluteus maximus muscles are prone to hamstring strains whereas runners with weak hip abductors and hip stabilizers have been shown to be prone to lateral knee pain. Use this section of the warm-up to strengthen and activate the glutes. My favorite drill is the Glute Bridge.
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor and a small circular band around your knees. Drive your heels into the ground as if trying to extend your legs.
Dig your shoulders into the ground and lift your hips – focus on squeezing your glutes. Lift to maximal hip extension – do not extend your low back. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times.
Another great drill for runners involves activating the deep hip flexors. Lie on your back with a mini-band wrapped around your feet. Bring your knees to your chest. Keep one knee held tight with your stomach while pressing the opposite leg away. Hold the end position for 5-seconds. Perform 8- to 10-reps per side.
3) Easy Aerobic Run
Next, run an easy (60% max heart rate) warm-up run for 10 to 20-minutes.
4) Dynamic Warm-Up Drills for Runners
These drills are referred to as general preparation drills. All sports will benefit from these drills as they promote range of motion in the ankles and hips. A lack of ankle and/or hip mobility can wreck havoc on a runner’s body, so ensure for the duration of your running career to achieve and maintain optimal ankle and hip mobility.
My two favourite dynamic stretches for runners are the deep and two-joint hip flexor drills.
Name: Deep Hip Flexor Stretch with Reach
Focus: To improve hip flexor range of motion
How to: Kneel on one knee with the opposite leg forward. Transfer a bit of weight forward while remaining tall and reaching up for the sky. Squeeze your butt on the kneeling side hip. You should feel a good stretch in the front of your hip. Hold for 5 seconds and perform 6-8 times per side. Perform 2 sets.
Name: Two Joint Hip Flexor Stretch
Focus: To improve quadriceps range of motion
How to: Kneel on one knee with the opposite leg forward. Grab your rear foot and carefully bring it toward your butt. Stay tall and keep your balance. Transfer a bit of weight forward and squeeze your butt on the kneeling side hip. You should feel a gentle stretch in front of your hip and down your thigh. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 6-8 times per side. Perform 2 sets.
5) Running Specific Warm-Up Drills
This is where the warm-up becomes more running specific. These drills break down the running stride and are performed to improve stride mechanics and running efficiency. Most know these drills as As, Bs and Cs. I wrote an article for Canadian Running Magazine outlining the benefits and the how-to. It’s called Easy as A, B, C and can be read HERE.
C-Skip Knee Down
C-Skip Knee Up
I should add that not all exercises are body-friendly. Many college track teams use warm-up and mobility drills that are actually strenuous to the spine and potentially injury causing.
6) Strides (controlled sprints)
This portion of the warm-up takes you one step closer to being race ready. Many times at road and track races, you’ll see runners sprint ahead for 60- to 100-meters, stop and walk back.
They are doing strides or controlled sprints. Nothing gets you primed up for running than running itself – so after you’ve completed phase 1 through 5, perform 4- to 6-strides, running at roughly 80- to 90% of your max speed.
These aren’t meant to kill you, so don’t bust out the fastest sprints you’ve ever run. You should feel primed and ready to race once phase 6 is complete.
There you have it, a 6-phase functional warm-up for runners. If you’re not used to warming up like this, be patient and take time to focus on the drills.
They will take time to learn, but the time invested will pay off in the end.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc Kin(c), CSCS, CEP is a Personal Trainer and Freelance Fitness Writer based in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He is a regular contributor to many major health and fitness magazines such as Canadian Running, Men’s Fitness, and Oxygen.