Growing up in childhood team sports, before practice began, your coach probably insisted you all gather into a circle and go through a series of stretches. My guess is that you stood, legs apart, and dropped your arms down to touch the ground. Maybe you sat on the ground and tried to touch both feet. Likely you did these, a few arms circles and then called it a day. It’s been ingrained in us that stretching before physical activity is so very, very important, lest you pull a muscle due to a lack of proper preparation. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but y’all may have been doing it wrong since childhood.
It is very important to stretch, but typically after your run or workout. Before you run you need to activate your muscles and prepare them for the job they’re about to perform, rather than holding cold muscles in a static stretch for a designated amount of time. It is actually more in fashion these days with the elite runner sect to do what is called a dynamic warm-up. What this means is that before we run, we need to get moving but more in a way to prepare our bodies for the motion of running, rather than doing slow, deep stretching of muscles that will be used while running. Make sense?
The way to best prepare your body for running is not by doing a stretch and holding it for a ten-count, rather, a series of shorter, quicker movements that “activate” your muscles, or wake them up, so that they are prepared to start running when you tell them to. These movements will also raise your heart rate a bit, as well as get your joints opened up and mobilized.
What I will share with you are a series of key activation exercises to do before you run, which is a portion of a true dynamic warm-up. If we’re talking full dynamic warm-up, it’s usually a 10-20 minute endeavor that is performed before a workout or strides that involves rather technical drills that range from a variety of specific skips, to bounding, to rolling on the ground in a variety of ways, to backwards cartwheels (not so much on that last one, but you get the idea.) Form is critical in those drills, but for our intents and purposes, we just want to get our bods off the steps and out to the trails.
I find that by targeting the following muscle groups, you’ll improve your chances of feeling great starting out instead of taking a mile or two to warm up:
Glutes: My favorite way to begin my activation is by standing with my feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and with my hands either on my hips or holding on to something in front of me for balance. I then lift one foot and slide it on a diagonal behind me and out to the side with my toe pointed, making sure I am feeling this movement in my booty. Slide that leg right back to standing position then repeat 9 more times and switch to the other foot. This wakes up your glutes, which are critical to running and keeping you injury-free.
Hips: One movement that will never lose its luster is the leg swing. It can be done as big or small, as aggressively or gentle as you please. I do 4-way legs swings, so I face a wall and swing my left leg side-to-side in front of me, then switch to my right leg, then I turn and swing my left leg forward and backward, then switch to the right leg. By doing 5 swings in each position, you mobilize your hip joint in all directions.
Calves: You can either do a set of 10 calf raises here or do a slow backward walk (10 steps on each side), making sure to feel your toes rolling down to the balls of your feet and then down to your heel. Make sure you keep your knees bent on this one; it helps to stretch the soleus (lower part of your calf).
Hammys: There are two simple exercises that work well, one being jogging butt kicks (need I elaborate?) and the other being a standing hamstring curl. Stand on one leg, stick your non-planted leg out in front of you with your heel hovering above the ground. Draw that heel back up and in towards your butt in a curling motion. Be sure to keep the movement controlled. Do this 10 times on each leg.
Quads: Remember the ‘ol grab your foot and bring it up to your butt? This particular activation exercise doesn’t vary too much from the original other than after grabbing your foot and bringing it up to your rear end; you’ll only hold your foot there for a one-count then release it. Do this 5 times on each side. The point is to wake up the quad and not hold the muscle in a position where it’s stretching while cold.
A tip for all my ladies with the quad exercise: Due to the fact that our hips and legs are constructed like a kitchen table with its legs pointing inward, we are 1.) more at risk for injury so we need to be diligent about proper run preparation and 2.) we are in dire need of stretching our quads by grabbing our feet with the opposite hand. If you grab your right foot with your right hand, you’ll notice that you actually pull the quad out to the side, which is the opposite direction that our leg bones and muscles are meant to go. By grabbing with the opposite hand, you minimize risk for injury in the quad and knee, since your leg is (briefly) stretched in its natural direction.
These exercises are a portion of a dynamic warmup and should be seen as an important way to wake up the whole body before you set out for a run of any length. Just stepping out your front door and barreling towards a 10 miler will shock the system and might get you into some injury-specific hot water, so do your body a favor and show it some pre-run love.
Post Run Stretching:
Remember the whole issue of static stretching, where you hold a stretch for 10 or so seconds? You might feel the urge to do this after your run, but this is when I still recommend more dynamic movements. I typically implement a combination of static-like stretching, holding stretches for less time than traditional static stretching but doing them quicker and a few more times.
The reason for these post-run dynamic stretches is that your muscles are dynamic creatures in and of themselves, so by performing shorter, quicker, stretches with them, they receive more benefits that holding a single stretch in place for a while. Keep in mind those 5 muscle groups, as well as your IT bands, and you’ll be able to avoid many injuries.