How many steps do you think it takes to run a mile? Research tells us that if you’re running at a 12 minute mile pace, you’ll take about 1,951 steps. Faster paces need less steps, a 6 minute mile pace using about 1,064 steps.
So, why the maths lesson? Well, if I asked you to hop 1,000 times on each leg you would probably feel like having a little warm up first, and yet running is pretty much that – an extended series of hopping from one leg to the other whilst trying to minimize ground contact time and dealing with forces of around 2.5 times your body weight each step.
Seeing running as a series of hops can be a useful way for many runners to realise that in order to reduce risk of injury, it makes sense to warm up. We’re not talking about just getting your muscles warm, we’re talking about getting the communication between your brain and muscles flowing nicely, gradually exposing your body to the forces it will be faced with once you start running, stimulating some balance and coordination before you start hopping from leg to leg 2000 times.
So what do we do in the warm up? Well, in order to answer that, let’s clear something up…
Static Stretching no, Dynamic Mobility YES!
Most runners will welcome any excuse to avoid warming up before running. We just want to run! So, when we hear research saying that static stretching (long-hold stretching) before a run does not reduce injury and can in fact decrease performance by reducing the natural leg stiffness required for running efficiency, the whole warm up process often gets happily pushed aside. However, the research is about static stretching (like touching your toes for 20+ seconds), not dynamic mobility exercises.
Dynamic mobility refers to controlled, repetitive sports-specific movements that mimic the way your muscles and connective tissues will need to move during your chosen activity, e.g. swinging your leg forwards and backwards 15 times. There is no evidence to show that dynamic mobility before a run inhibits performance.
Let’s look at an example: one of the major components of an efficient running stride is being able to extend your leg behind you before your toe leaves the ground. As far as range of movement goes, running only requires slightly more extension range in the hip than walking (15 degrees compared to 12), so trying to ‘stretch’ your hip flexors makes little sense. More important us your control during the range, and that’s exactly what mobility means: control during range. Lunges are similar in many ways to the coordinated move in running, especially if you use your arms, which is why I am a big fan of the Lunge Matrix as a dynamic warm up for runners.
The Lunge Matrix
The original Lunge Matrix was created by physical therapist Gary Gray, and later popularized by elite running coach Jay Johnson, who describes it as “quintessential, elemental and fundamental to staying healthy as a runner.” Like Jay, I recommend you perform the lunge matrix warm up before any running. The video below shows me demonstrating a version of The Lunge Matrix that I give to many runners, tweaking it as and when necessary to suit the needs of the individual runner.
1. Forward Lunge
In this lunge, you are preparing for forwards & backwards movement (the sagittal plane). For most runners, a useful target is to keep the knees in alignment with the feet and in order to recruit the posterior chain (glutes & hamstrings) instead of the quadriceps I tend to recommend not allowing the front knee to pass over the toes. This method can be used to discourage any excessive arching of the lower back and achieve a better stretch in the all too often restricted hip flexors.
2. Forward Lunge with Twist
The action of twisting the upper body across the front leg (moving your body through the transverse plane) increases the stretch on the hip flexor of the back leg. By challenging your balance it engages the core (including the glutes) and increases proprioception (your body’s ability to sense movement within joints and joint position). It will take some practice so break it down into stages.
3. Side Lunge
This lunge moves your body through the frontal plane and in doing so targets the abductors and hip-stabilizing muscles. Keeping the weight bearing leg straight will engage the upper hip musculature more (instead of bending the knees and using the quads). Rotating the lifted foot out to 45 degrees and move the knee in line with the foot.
4. Reverse Diagonal Lunge
With this lunge, the leading leg travels back and diagonally behind you. By travelling in a combination of the frontal plane and sagittal plane, you are preparing for the often forgotten rotational demands of running.
5. Reverse Lunge
The backwards lunge is often more challenging than the others but in essence involves the same muscle movement sequencing that is needed in running. It demands more core stability, hip extension and glute recruitment than the other lunges, decreasing hip and ankle stiffness.
Single Leg Balance Exercises
If there is one other component of a dynamic warm up that I recommend to most runners, it is single leg drills. Some runners already do these whilst holding onto a tree or lamp post… but to prepare for the repeated demands of stabilising on one leg every step, it makes more sense to perform these without any external support. The video below takes you through a routine i often give out. Notice the focus on variation, and enjoy the dynamic toe pumps at the end of the video to help get those calves ready for action!
What are YOUR favourite components or tips for a runner’s warm up? Whether you are a runner or therapist, we would love to hear from you!