Why Active Stretching is Important Before You Run
By Campbell McCormack
Given the nature of endurance sports, it is not surprising that runners cringe at the notion of spending extra time stretching before a workout. You plan to go out for a nice 5 mile run, but who has the time or patience for a boring, time-consuming warm-up? Besides, after a mile or so, you’ll be plenty warm, right?
Consider if you will an alternative. An effective round of mobility drills that target every part of the body, that cover balance and that even hit the core, called dynamic stretching. Sounds like a complete workout in itself, doesn’t it? Now what if that the drills can be done in a little as 5-10 minutes! An investment like that is surely worth it considering the alternative: suffering lost mileage or training time from injury.
There is a significant paradigm shift happening in the performance and rehabilitation industries about what is considered effective warm up and warm down exercises and movements for athletes. Clinical studies have shown that traditional static stretches — stretching exercises that elongate the muscles, performed while the body is at rest — may be harmful to sports involving powerful movements such as running.
For this reason, many coaches now advocate dynamic stretching, which incorporates a full range movements with nothing more than a short pause, to increase range of motion, and dynamic stretching prior to performing for injury prevention and preparation. More importantly, dynamic stretches are effective at reducing muscle stiffness, which is thought to increase the likelihood of muscle tears.
Dynamic stretching is meant to loosen joints, stretch muscles, use core muscles, and to excite the nervous system. Think of a pre-flight checklist at the airport. The technicians do not just look at the engine or the tire pressure. They check every system to make sure the plane flies under ideal conditions. Same thing with dynamic stretching…runners engage all the body’s key mechanisms before starting a run and its all systems go!
If it sounds like this whole thing is getting more and more complicated, don’t worry. It’s much easier than you think. Below are two simple moves that cover almost every muscle group in the body. A few reps of each and you’ll be surprised to find some limitations you did not know that you even had.
Hand Walk. Beginning from a push-up position, slowly walk your feet in toward your hands, without allowing your knees to bend. The movement should be coming from the ankles only. Once you reach a point where you cannot come in any closer, stop, and start walking your hands forward. Keep walking them out until you feel as if you would collapse if you moved any farther. Now, continue this sequence for anywhere between 5-20 yards (more if you feel extra stiff that day).
Lunge to Instep. This sounds more intimidating than it is. You will not find a more all-encompassing drill for the legs than this one. Start in a long lunge position with the opposite hand next to the foot in front. Make a full shoulder turn away from the front leg and pause for a second. Immediately after that, drop the same side elbow down along your shin toward the instep. Again, just a brief pause. Finally, place your other hand on the outside of your foot and raise your front toes and hips up into the air. Anywhere between 5-10 repetitions per side is usually enough.
The big question is, “Does it work?” Mark Lacianca, Head Coach of the Unionville High School girls cross-country team, has become a believer. Somewhat resistant at first, he now implements a structured Active Dynamic Warm-up before every workout, practice, or meet.
“Dynamic Stretching has really benefitted our older runners. We are a much healthier team and I have also seen great changes with coordination and correcting muscle imbalances,” says Mark.
Mark knows a thing or two about running. His team now has a seven-year unbeaten streak, five straight top 10 finishes in the
state, and a state title in 2004. Mark is on the leading edge of training a new generation of endurance athletes.
Charlie Mengers, a long-time distance runner, has been using dynamic stretching for over a year. Prior to that, “stretching was not part of my running routine, until my hamstring injury!”
Fortunately, Charlie has not only overcome his injury, but has also integrated dynamic stretching into his daily routine. “They are so quick and easy to do, I even use them on an as-needed basis if I cramp or tighten up at any point during the day.” Charlie acknowledges that his current running times have not gone down, but he finds success in a different way. “Success for me is measured by still being out there running with no new or recurring injuries.”
So where does static stretching belong? In a nutshell, static stretching is better used after a run or workout, rather than before. It helps to calm the nervous system, bring the heart rate back down, and to restore flexibility to normal ranges.
A wide variety of dynamic stretches exist. Those in this article are two of the more comprehensive ones. I would urge you to explore what’s out there or contact me, firstname.lastname@example.org, for some additional examples. Until then, enjoy the road!
Campbell McCormack is a Senior Staff Therapist for Excel Physical Therapy & Fitness in Glen Mills, PA. He also serves as the Manager of Fitness Services which includes management of a Parisi Speed School (the nation’s premier youth performance and conditioning program). He is also certified in Functional Movement Screening and is currently pursuing his Russian Kettlebell Certification. He can be reached at: email@example.com