For years, runners have been told the same thing, “Don’t forget to stretch before you run!” This guidance has been followed from casual runners to seasoned athletes alike. You would be hard-pressed to find the starting line of a local race that isn’t littered with participants lunging to stretch out their hamstrings or holding a leg up to stretch a quad. This routine is ingrained in our minds as the “appropriate” way to warm up for a run. With so many people doing it, few think to question: Is this really the best way to prepare for a race?
Many would be surprised to learn the short answer is no. Is it the worst thing you can do? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on your pre-race ritual. Here’s the thing, static stretching is not inherently bad, but it has a time and a place. So, you might be thinking to yourself, what’s the alternative? The answer is dynamic stretching. We’ll get to that in a minute.
First, without getting too complicated, let’s talk a little bit about muscle physiology. Scattered throughout our muscles are many different receptors. They all serve a purpose and play a role in making the body function efficiently to avoid injury. There are muscle spindles which are stretch receptors whose job is to provide feedback to the brain regarding the length of a muscle. Then we have Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs). The role of GTOs is to provide neurological feedback to the brain based on how much tension is being produced in a muscle at any given time. These two receptors work in conjunction with the brain to help prevent muscle tearing by either contracting the muscle or signaling it to relax.
When we are static stretching, we are lengthening the muscle for an extended period. Sometimes as long as a minute or two. The goal of the prolonged lengthening of the muscle is to help stretch the collagen fibers and provide you with a lasting lengthened muscle and, in turn, improved flexibility. This is a useful tool (remember I didn’t say static stretching was bad) in many rehab and injury prevention programs. The problem is, for static stretching to have lasting effects, you need to be diligent and committed to stretching regularly. The one-minute holds on your quad before a run is simply not enough to have a lasting effect.
Additionally, research has recently brought to light that static stretching, or extended lengthening of the muscle, may actually lead to a decrease in muscle performance before a run. When the muscle spindles recognize a muscle being lengthened for an extended period, they provide neurological feedback to decrease the contraction, essentially “turning off” the muscle. This effect can last up to an hour post-stretching and negatively affect your race. So, when should you stretch statically? Regularly! Use it as a post-run warm down, even a couple of hours after your event. This will help achieve the lengthened collagen and train your flexibility.
So now, that I have disrupted your routine, what is your alternative warm-up? Instead of static stretching, try a dynamic warm-up — dynamic, meaning constant change. Instead of standing there holding your leg in a lengthened position, new research suggests that dynamic stretching will allow you properly warm up your muscles and achieve temporarily lengthened muscles that are ready to perform for your race. The goal of a dynamic warm-up is to target the main muscles that will be active in your run, such as your quadriceps, your hamstrings, and hip flexors, just to name a few.
Here is an example of a dynamic warmup:
This warm-up should take you roughly 3-5 minutes to perform. It should be performed on both legs for about 10-15 reps per side. By the end of it, your muscles should feel loose, warm, and ready to perform.The first motion is hip flexion, bringing your knee up to your chest to activate the hip flexor.
The next motion will be hip flexion with a straight leg, you are going to continue to activate the hip flexor, but you will also be getting a more dynamic stretch on the hamstring.
Next is simple knee flexion. This will help activate the hamstring and get a dynamic stretch to target the quadriceps muscle.
Next up, a straight leg hip extension. The goal with this motion is to really contract the glutes at the back of the motion, ensuring you do not arch your low back while performing it.
Finally, we want you to put it all together in a “cycle.” Bring the hip into flexion, knee into extension, and then begin to extend and the hip and flex the knee.
You might be wondering, why does a dynamic warm-up work so much better? Well first of all your muscles will not experience the neuromuscular shut down that happens with static stretching, thereby maximizing your performance. Secondly, it helps bring blood to the muscles better, preparing them to be pushed during your event. Lastly, a dynamic warm-up helps moderates the Golgi tendon organs in the muscle, which results in a short-term functional increase in muscle length. This lengthening is exactly what you need for an injury-free run. Isn’t it great when we can use science to help us maximize our warm-ups?
Sometimes it’s just minor changes that can make a world of difference, especially when it comes to performance and injury prevention. Performing an appropriate warm-up can be the difference between a pulled hamstring and a smooth run, so try out our recommended dynamic warm-up before your next race and let us know how it goes!