Stretching and warming up is an essential part of every runner’s routine. You might be having questions such as: when should I stretch, why should I warm up, or will this reduce my chance of injury? All of these are good questions that will be touched on in this blog post.
Every run should begin with some type of a warm up. Without it your chances of injury increase. A good warm up gives your muscles and joints a chance to loosen up before harder efforts later in the workout. It brings your heart rate up to exercising levels at a gradual rate and changes your hormone levels to make more fatty acids and carbohydrates available for energy production. Follow these steps to make sure your muscles are primed and ready to go before every run. Not all of these need to be included in a warm up, but it will give you an idea of what a thorough warm up should look like.
Walk: Many people discredit walking, but it’s actually a great gentle way to get the body out of sitting mode and into workout mode. Walk for about 3-5 minutes. Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist, explains that walking will take your joints through a similar range of motion as running. This will warm your muscles and core temperature up and get your brain ready to go.
Strides: Also called pick ups, are short bursts of running over about 50-100 meters. These provide a quick rush of blood to the muscles and recruit your fast twitch muscle fibers. Here’s how to do them.
Start by jogging easy for 2 min.
Accelerate slowly over the 50-100 meter distance to about 90-95% of sprinting speed and then gradually decelerate.
After each one, walk around and shake your legs out for about 90 seconds. Repeat 4-6 times.
The exact time or distance of the stride is not critical.
Dynamic stretching: This uses controlled leg movements to improve range or motion, and increases blood flow, body temperature, and heart rate to help you run more efficiently. Here are some dynamic stretches to include in your warm up.
Side step or side shuffle
Hacky Sack: Lift your knee so that it points outward. Touch the inside of your foot with your opposite hand without bending over. Repeat 10 times on each side.
Toy Soldier: Keep your back and knees straight. Walk forward while lifting your leg straight up and keep your toes pulled back toward you. Repeat 10 times on each side.
I want to shift the focus over to stretching. When most people think of stretching they usually think of static stretching where you hold a muscle in a stretched position for anywhere from 30-60 seconds. This has been a somewhat controversial topic over the years, especially on the best time to stretch. Some people say before a run, some after, somewhere in the middle, or not at all. Hopefully, I can help provide some clarity to this issue.
Traditional logic says that you should stretch before running as part of your warm up, but you might have noticed that this type of stretching was not included in the warm up routine that was just listed. Why is this? Michele Olson, an exercise scientist at Auburn University, had this to say. “Static stretching is not the optimal way to warm-up before you run, you could actually strain your muscles with static stretching, and it might even slow you down.” She recommends a warm up similar to the one listed above that gradually increases the heart over about 10 min. She does recommend static stretching, but it should be done after running when the muscles are warmed up, focusing on the leg, hip, and low back muscles. Quick tip: the hip flexors are typically a muscle group that is a problem for most runners and is often forgotten about in most stretching routines.
There is also the common misconception that stretching will help prevent injury. This can be true, but not always. Being too flexible can also lead to injury as well as being too stiff. Olson says, “Overly flexible joints have less stability and are more vulnerable to being overstretched or moved out of normal, joint-friendly positions, but there needs to be a balance between flexibility and stability to prevent injuries. Stable joints that have strong muscles surrounding them don’t allow the joint to move into ranges that can over stress the tendons and ligaments.” Each joint has to have enough range of motion to be able to run with efficient form, but also have the muscular strength at each joint to be able to control the range of motion to reduce the risk of injury as much as possible.
There is another consequence of being overly flexible. You could decrease your ability to store free energy in the muscle. This is created by the muscle absorbing energy from the impact when your foot hits the ground. This free energy will be used during the propulsion phase of the running cycle. Think of it like pulling and then releasing a sling shot every time your foot hits the ground. The longer and more flexible a muscle is, the less capable it is of storing this energy thus decreasing the power of the sling shot. This can lead to less power and efficiency while running. One other thing about stretching that a lot of people don’t know is that it actually weakens a muscle. If you have a particularly tight spot that you are trying to stretch a lot it would be a good idea to also add some strengthening exercises to that area as well.