Small changes can produce a big effect. A dynamic warm-up before a run is short enough to easily skip, yet spending two to five minutes preparing your body to run can help you run faster and reduce your risk of injury.
At the start of the year, I read Jonathan Beverly’s Your Best Stride: How to Optimize Your Natural Running Form to Run Easier, Farther, and Faster – with Fewer Injuries. Beverly discussed how improving hip mobility and shoulder mobility ameliorates hip extension and arm swing during a run. Hip extension and arm swing through the full range of motion optimize your natural form and helps you run stronger, smoother, and faster. Since reading this book, I adjusted my pre-run warm-up to include three simple exercises to improve hip and shoulder mobility – and I have noticed that my form and stride feel strong and smooth.
Tight shoulders and a hunched upper body do not facilitate a strong arm swing. Swinging your arms in front of you causes you to bend forward at the waist, which in turn tightens your hip flexors, shuts off your glutes, and overuses your hamstrings. If you look at elite runners, you will notice they drive their arms back with each stride. Driving your arms back maintains a neutral spine, opens your chest for better breathing, and encourages hip extension.
Tight hips do not extend fully, yet tight hips are overwhelmingly common in 21st-century life. Without full hip extension, you lose the power of a hip drive and are more likely to overstride. Warming up your hips by moving them through a full range of motion before a run releases some of the tightness so that you can maximize the power of your hip drive during a run. Mobilizing the hips will also reduce the risk of injury since you are less likely to overstride or have other biomechanical irregularities in your form.
A proper warm-up before a run utilizes dynamic stretches to mobilize the hips, shoulders, and other working muscles. Static stretches can reduce muscle power, which isn’t ideal for any run, especially a hard workout or long run. Dynamic stretches move your muscles through a range of motion, thus allowing you to fully access the mobility and strength you have. (Dynamic stretches should not attempt to increase mobility – that is the role of static stretches after a run.) A dynamic warm-up also primes your muscles for work by increasing blood flow to them.
Before Every Run: Mobility and Activation
You can choose from dozens of various activation exercises (such as these dynamic stretches for runners and these four ideas for how to warm up for a run); as a running coach, I’ve assigned numerous ones to my athletes based on their needs. You can spend longer on your warm-up, but if you are short on time or don’t want to spend a long time on your warm-up, these three exercises will mobilize your hips and shoulders in a matter of minutes: arm swings, lateral lunges, and walking lunges.
Arm Swings: Arm swings stretch the muscles in the chest and shoulders and mobilize the muscles in your upper back. Stand tall with your arms straight and bring them together in front of you at waist height. Contract your upper back muscles to swing your arms back as far as you safely can, then swing forward again. You want to raise your arms slightly higher with each swing until they reach shoulder height. At the end of the swings, swing your arms back and, while keeping your arms straight, clasp your hands and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Complete 2-4 reps.
Walking Lunges: A walking lunge mobilizes the hip flexor and surrounding muscles. By adding the dynamic component of pushing off your back foot and pulling the leg forward and upward to step into the next lunge, you also increase your range of motion and activate your glutes. Step forward with your left foot so that your left knee is over your left foot and your right knee drops close to the ground. Maintain an upright posture and avoid rotating your hips or torso. Hold for a few seconds, then step through with your right leg to come into a lunge. Alternate for 4-8 steps per leg.
Lateral Lunges: Lateral lunges activate the glutes, enhance range of motion, and mobilize the hips from another angle. Step your right leg out to the side with your right knee over your right foot and lower your hips down and back. Maintain a straight back by allowing yourself to hinge slightly at the hips. Push off of your right foot to return to standing and repeat with your left leg. Alternate for 4-8 reps per leg.
Before Speedwork and Tempo Runs: Strides
In addition to the dynamic warm-up, strides prepare the body for faster running. Shifting from a conversational pace in the warm-up to tempo pace or 5K pace can prove challenging; strides aid the transition with short bursts of faster running. Strides improve your running economy, neuromuscular fitness, and your cadence – thus aiding in a full extension of your hips and strong swing of your arms. By adding them to your warm-up, you will likely notice that your workout feels smoother and stronger.
Strides should only last 20-25 seconds: approximately 5-10 seconds to accelerate, 10 seconds at a fast effort, and then a deceleration of about 5 seconds. Strides are not all-out sprints – they should feel relaxed and should not take much effort to maintain. (Trying to maintain the fast effort for more than 10-15 seconds transform it recruits your anaerobic energy system, making this a completely different workout. If you notice yourself huffing and puffing, the stride lasted too long or was too fast.) Focus on good form throughout the entire stride.
You can incorporate strides in one of two way: as part of your warm-up run (alternating 20-second accelerations with 60-seconds at your normal warm-up effort) or after completing your warm-up run (alternating 20-second accelerations with 60-seconds rest or walk). If you are new to strides, add in one or two strides to your warm-up; once your body is adapted, complete 3-5 strides over the course of your warm-up.
Once you make a habit of warming up before each run and spending a little extra time warming up before hard workouts, you will notice that your runs feel stronger and your form feels smoother. Once you notice the results, the habit is easy to maintain!
How do you warm up before your run?
What small thing makes a difference in your running?