For many of us, warming up before a run has long fallen by the wayside; most days find us racing out the door trying to fit a 40 minute run into a 30 minute lunch break. However, incorporating an effective warm up routine before you set off – including muscle activation for just 5-10 minutes – can help improve running economy and prevent injury.
Often, when people hear the words ‘warm up’ they picture a long session of stretching. However, research on the benefits of stretching have been inconclusive at best and studies have shown that for running in particular, static stretching before a run may not actually improve your running performance or decrease your risk of injury. Increased flexibility increases the need for muscle-stabilization activity, as well as decreased storage and return of elastic energy.
To put it simply, the more flexible you are, the more energy your body uses to stabilize that range of motion, rather than putting that energy into maintaining speed. All this being said, I’m not saying that you should never stretch again – on the contrary, stretching is fantastic as a cool down and recovery tool.
So, What Is the Right Way to Warm Up?
As is undoubtedly obvious, running uses a lot of muscles, especially in our lower body. However, with current work schedules resulting in people sitting down for large amounts of the day, the big muscles in the posterior chain that we need to engage for optimal performance and decreasing risk of injury are often lazy and forget how to wake up. When these muscles forget how to fire properly our quads and hip flexors have to work extra hard to pull up our legs – a job they shouldn’t be doing alone.
The Posterior Chain: As the name suggests, it is all the muscles that make up the back side of your body, running from your head, all the way down to your feet. Composed of some of the largest and strongest muscles in the body, the posterior chain includes our calves, hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles. It’s responsible for controlling our gait, acceleration and deceleration, and keeping us upright.
Doing 5 simple exercises that activate the posterior chain before you head out for your run can help improve your running economy, prevent injury and bring your heart rate up slowly so that you are ready to rumble at the start of your run.
Perform 1-3 rounds of 8-10 reps of each exercise (on each side if necessary):
- Lunges with Front Heel Raise: Starting with your feet shoulder distance apart, step forward into a lunge position, making sure that your front knee does not extend past your toes, or point inwards. At the bottom of your lunge, lift your front heel off the ground and slowly return it to the ground, with control. From there, push through your heel to return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side. This exercise activates your calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads all in one go.
- Glute Bridge: Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and feet firmly planted on the floor. Pressing into your heels, lift your hips off the ground, making a straight line with your body from your shoulders to your knees. Squeeze your glutes at the top for a count of 3, before lowering your hips with control back to the ground. Once you get stronger, try adding resistance with a band or weights.
- Hip Hinge: Start with your feet shoulder width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Engaging your core muscles, shift the weight onto your heels and begin to hinge at the hips, pushing your hips and butt back. Make sure your spine remains in a straight line with a neutral gaze forward, and ensure you are hinging at your hips rather than your lower back. Keeping a slight bend in your knees, hinge until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings – this will be somewhere between vertical and parallel to the floor – before engaging your glutes and hamstrings to bring your torso back to the upright position. Ensuring that your core is engaged throughout the entire movement is essential.
- Lateral Lunge with Knee Drive: Starting with your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointing forward, step out to one side as far as you can. Shift your weight onto that heel, drop your hips and bend the knee, keeping your other leg straight and foot flat on the floor. Push into the heel of the bent knee and return to the starting position, bringing that same knee up to 90 degrees in front of you. This exercise should activate your inner and outer thigh muscles, core, glutes, and hamstrings.
- Single Leg Calf Raises: Standing on one leg with the other brought up to 90 degrees in front of you, push up quickly onto the ball of the standing foot, engaging your calf muscle. Hold at the top for a single count, before lowering your heel back onto the floor slowly for a count of 3, working on the eccentric strengthening of the muscle. Complete all the reps on one leg before switching to the other leg. If you find yourself losing your balance, you may need something to hold on to or a wall to support yourself.
These exercises are not prescriptive and are part of a large number of exercises that can activate your posterior chain so feel free to mix it up! This warm up only takes about 10 minutes, but the right routine will give your muscles a chance to prepare for the work ahead, making it easier to get into the rhythm you want to sustain during your run, and have you feeling good and ready to hit the road again.