Do You Run? Avoid These Common Stretching Mistakes

runner

This is my first, but certainly not my last post about the importance of a dynamic, pre-run warm-up. Just changing how you warm-up and make all the difference in a successful rehabilitation; and the first step when breaking out of a chronic cumulative injury cycle.

As a runner myself, I totally understand the natural aversion runners have to warming up.  All we want to do is run. We know the sooner we put foot to pavement, road or trail, the sooner we get that long awaited fix of mind-body connection, escapism, and oneness with nature. 

In one's hectic daily life, finding time for your run is no easy feat.  Being a runner takes dedication, organization and more often than not, a high degree of time management.

Most runners also want to get faster and avoid injury. This is where we really have to weigh up how best to spend the time we find for running. For example, faced with a choice of either (A): Run for 10 minutes longer or (B): Do a 10 minute warm-up, which would you choose?  But let’s see how you feel by the end of this article.

Common misconceptions

In order to help you understand the benefits and content of an 8-10 minute warm up before every run, let us first take a look at some of the common misconceptions that in my experience are typically used to fuel our inherent desire to just get running as soon as we step outside of our front door.

I’ve heard stretching before a run can reduce performance?

When I talk about a warm-up, I am not referring to the traditional static stretching we were encouraged to do 10 years ago. It is true that research (Florida State University, 2010) has shown that static stretching (holding a stretch for over 60 seconds) can inhibit performance.

In the research, trained distance runners became about 5% less efficient and covered 3% less distance in a time trial after doing static stretching before the run. However, we are not talking about static stretching here. We are talking about dynamic stretching – controlled, repetitive sports-specific movements that mimic the way your muscles and connective tissues will need to move during your chosen activity. And in case you are still worried, a follow up to the aforementioned research stated that there is no evidence that dynamic stretching before a run inhibits performance.

A light jog is a sufficient warm-up, no?

For most runners, a slow paced first mile is regarded as enough to prepare the body for the exertion it is about to undergo. And indeed, some runners seem to get by on just this, although whether they are forsaking some of their true potential is another matter. Given that 30- 70% of runners (depending on the source) get injured every year, I suggest you do not put too much faith in what the masses do.

Running is an extended series of hopping from one leg to the other whilst trying to minimize ground contact time (with some help from gravity, depending on your running form), dealing with forces of around 2.5 times your body weight each time your foot hits the ground. 

An easy mile at a 12-minute pace involves approximately 1,951 steps (hops), compared to 1,064 for a 6-minute-mile (Boise State University). Are you still happy to leave your house and go straight into an easy mile warm up?

If I waste time on warm-ups I won’t be able to get enough miles done every week.

For distance runners, there is no doubt that improving your aerobic capacity is crucial. The secret to improving aerobic capacity is maintaining a high weekly mileage volume. The more oxygen your muscles are able to utilise as you run, the more energy you will have and the faster you will be able to run over that distance.

However, the aerobic system is only one of two factors involved in developing running performance. The other is neuromuscular fitness, the ability of your brain to communicate and activate muscles whilst you are running.

Though traditionally training focuses on developing the efficiency of the heart, lungs, muscles, etc, it is your brain that controls all of these, controls everything in fact. Your running form, efficiency, economy, power, stride length, stride frequency and ultimately fatigue resistance – all of these are neuromuscular in nature. None of them will be developed just by focusing on aerobic fitness.

Also, and maybe most importantly, although the precise reason for many running related injuries is still the subject of research, it is very likely that poor form, efficiency, economy and fatigue are major factors.

Dynamic stretching 

In this way, the warm-up is no longer just preparation of your muscles and connective tissues for the dynamic range of movement you will require during your run.  It is an opportunity to “switch your brain on”, to “wake up” that vital communication between brain and muscles in preparation for efficient, safe running; a chance to practice movement patterns that may promote a more efficient running form which in turn may delay the fatigue and pain that has been holding back your performance and opening you up to repeated injury.

If you go straight into an easy paced mile as a warm-up, you run the risk of launching into 1,951 poorly performed slow hops, perfect preparation for 1,200 to 1,500 poorly performed fast hops every mile once you turn up the pace.

A key part of a successful neuromuscular development is concentrating on what you are doing.

Neuromuscular training is about stimulating the brain’s communication with the muscles. It therefore follows that any exercise or drill we perform to improve such communication needs to involve an element of concentration and skill requirement. We need to stimulate the brain, encourage it to communicate and activate more muscle fibres, improve timing so that the movements involved in stride mechanics become more coordinated and efficient. Simply going through the motions is not enough.

An 8-10 minute warm-up before every run can be a great time to fit this in. With a focus on using your time wisely, no equipment is required.

Consistency is key. By performing a conscious, skill based warm up before every run, based on the exercises shown below, you will be giving yourself a true chance to discover how powerful a tool regular neuromuscular training can be in improving your running performance and reducing injury occurrence. Once you start seeing ancillary work as a vital, productive part of your training as opposed to an extra bit forced upon you by your coach or physical therapist, I have confidence that you will see your running move to a new level.

Click here to sign up for a 60 minute full body comprehensive running assessment by a Doctor of Physical Therapy who is a running biomechanics expert. Assessment includes flexibility and strength screening, video gait analysis, footwear evaluation, and on the spot advice to improve your running performance.