Dynamic Warm Up For Runners
I know, I know...runners just want to run. After a busy day of work it's time to just get to it. But warming up is important for preventing injury, especially when it is cold out. I recommend dynamic warm ups for running because static stretching has not shown in research to prevent overall sports injury.(2) A dynamic warm up can mimic the motions that are used in running and warm up the cardiovascular system as well to prepare for the load and demands of the upcoming run.
This is a video of a full dynamic warm-up I created with the demands of running in mind, and also based on the deficits I tend to see in injured runners. There are a lot of ways to warm up - this is just one example - but the goal is to get the entire body moving and using all of the motions needed during running. Read on for a full list of the exercises in the warm up, with a 'why' and 'how' description for each.
1. Thoracic Whips
Thoracic whips are an exercise I learned from Dr. E from Modern Manual Therapy.
Why: Whips can be used to get the upper back moving into rotation, which is needed for a good arm swing. When the upper back moves appropriately the arms stay in tight when swinging, allowing for good transfer of energy from the upper body to the lower body. As we run, we counter-rotate the upper and lower body, creating a stretch-shortening cycle of muscles in the core to help propel us forward. If the arms are swinging too far out to the side and crossing too far across the body, this may mean we are not rotating through the thoracic spine, which is often stiff in our culture. Whips can help access the available thoracic rotation so it can be used during the run.
How To: Start with the hands locked together and tucked into the sternum, keep them there the entire exercise. Blow out hard and rotate your upper back as fast and as far as you can to one side and come back to the middle. Your head and neck should turn with you. The hips and legs will stay relatively still, with most of the rotation coming from the upper back. Repeat 10 times on each side.
2. Foot mobility drills:
Why: The foot needs to be able to make quick adjustments to the ground to allow us to keep weight evenly distributed for balance, and to allow us to roll off the big toe at push-off and to help us absorb the shock of running. For this to happen the forefoot needs to be able to make slight movements independent from the mid foot. This exercise is a way to remind our nervous system how to use this motion. I love to use this one as a warm up, but also during the treatment of many injuries. Here is a full video from my youtube page explaining the 'why' and 'how' of this exercise.
How to: Start by placing one foot behind the other and turning the feet in, so they are crossed. Then do a small squat and push the back heel into the ground. Make sure the ball of the big toe on the back foot stays on the ground during the exercise. Return to the start position and repeat 10 reps on each side.
3. Leg swings:
Why: This will warm up the swinging leg hip abductor and adductors, muscles that are really involved in controlling the loading of the leg when the foot hits the ground. The standing ankle is also getting warmed up. Just as the foot itself needs to have mobility to adjust during the run, the ankle‘s talus bone needs to rotate to make subtle adjustments. Talus rotation is warmed up during swings. In fact, the entire leg is working into rotation during this drill, so it is an all around great leg warm up drill.
How to: Stand tall arms straight out to the side. Swing one leg out to the side and then across the body. Repeat 10 times on each side.
4. Kick Back
Why: This warms up the hip into extension to aid push off and propelling the body forward. When hip extension is limited, the back and pelvis may be engaged more to compensate. This is not the most efficient running pattern and may lead to injury. For this reason, warming up hip extension is very important.
How to: Lean slightly forward to keep the ribs stacked over the pelvis, the weight stays over the standing leg for this exercise. Keep slight tension in the abdominals, just enough to keep the spine and pelvis still. Do not squeeze the abs so hard that you cannot get a full breath down into the pelvis. Kick back quickly and feel the glutes engage and return to start. Repeat 10 quick reps on each side, breathing out with each kick back.
5. Straight leg kicks
Why: The hamstrings are a very commonly injured muscle group in running. The hamstrings often overwork to help stabilize the pelvis and to decelerate us during landing to compensate for poor core and pelvic stability, altered breathing strategies, and inefficient running technique. We ask our hamstring to do a lot during running, so it is crucial that they are warmed up. Most runners static stretch the hamstrings. It is not uncommon to have a patient who stretches their hamstrings daily but never sees much improvement in range of motion. That is because, although the hamstrings may feel tight, they usually have adequate length but the nervous system is unable to access the motion for a variety of reasons. Static stretching will not help this. During this exercise we use arm resistance, breathing and trunk flexion to engage the core to allow us to be able to access more range and fully, dynamically warm up the hamstring.
How to: Place one hand on top of the other. Push the hands together so they are resisting each other. This will cause the core to engage. As you do this kick one leg up toward the hands and curl the neck and spine down to get more core engagement allowing for full hamstring motion. Exhale as you lift the leg. Repeat with the other leg. Do this ten times and then switch hand positions and repeat 10 more times.
6. Hip hikes
Why: One of the most common running form deviations that may lead to injury is the hip dropping when the opposite foot hits the ground. Often times when this happens we may see a narrow running gait, legs crossing midline when landing and/or an inward collapse at the knee that may lead to pain and injury. Warming up the glutes in a hip hike pattern may help with hip dropping.
How to: Lift one leg up by lifting the hip bone up towards the head and lowering slowly. Try to keep the trunk upright and do not lean to the opposite side. You can add arm pumps into this exercise as well. Repeat 20 times alternating sides.
7. March skips
Why: Skipping is a great exercise that mimics running but also prepares the bones, muscles and tendons for the load of running. Here is a great video from Chris Johnson from Zeren PT showing skipping. Chris Johnson is a great source of information for all runners. I used a variation of skipping and marching because of limited space. Either are great ways to warm up.
How to: March one leg up and, at the top, raise up onto your toes. Lower down and repeat on the other side. Pump the arms and blow out as you lift the leg. Repeat 20 times alternating legs.
Why: Squats are a full body exercise and a great way to get the body working together before a run. Squats mimic the load that is placed on the legs during landing and are also great to get the ankle loose to aid in shock absorption. Some runners may prefer to advance to a single leg squat to be even more running specific but, for most during a warm up, regular squats are fine.
How to: Stand up tall, with your weight evenly distributed between your toes and your heels and your rib cage stacked over your pelvis. Inhale and lower down sitting back into your heels. Do not sit back so far that you cannot keep the toes on the ground, you should be still contacting the ground through the ball of the foot, including the ball of the big toe. Keep the knees wide over the second toe, but not so wide that you cannot keep the big toe down. Exhale and come up, repeat 10 times.
Walking: It is a good idea, especially on cold days to start your run with a walk. Gradually increases pace until you are walking so fast that you have to run. This helps the body to transition to running especially if we are running first thing in the morning or after a long day of sitting at a desk.
Breathing: Remember to breathe throughout the warm up, blowing out as you execute the movement. Breathing is important to our core stability and overall running form, and the warm up can be a good time to get the breathing system going too. Check out my 3 part series on breathing for more about this topic
Balance: You may be a little unsteady when you first do some of these exercises. You may have noticed in the video I had to put my foot down once during the hip swings and steady myself once during the kick backs. That is completely normal. We are warming up our balance system too and if you stop because you are a little unsteady you will never get the chance to learn the balance. I recommend doing these exercise without holding on to something to help with balance. But if you really have to, start with one finger on something to balance but progress to no hand support as quickly and as safely as possible.
Arm swing: For most of the warm up exercises, arm swing can be incorporated into the exercise to get the arms and upper back moving and prepared for running.
I hope you will give the warm up a try, especially now that winter is here. Please email me with any questions. Kelly@kellykuhnpt.com
Goldthorp, J. (2013, November 4). Middle Back Mobility: Why You Need It And How To Get It — Fix Your Run | Stronger, Bulletproof Runners By John Goldthorp. Fix Your Run | Stronger, Bulletproof Runners By John Goldthorp. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://www.fixyourrun.com/blog/2013/11/middle-back-mobility-why-you-need-it-and-how-to-get-it
http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32027560/. (2004, March 29). CDC: Stretching Doesn’t Prevent Injuries. Msnbc.com. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4619394/ns/health-fitness/t/cdc-stretching-doesnt-prevent-injuries/#.Xe_uEy2ZMnU
Johnson, C., & PT, Z. (2012, August 9). Gentle Skipping | Chris Johnson PT. YouTube. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://youtu.be/Ts-cL6bX4ik
Religioso, Dr. E. (2013, November 4). Thoracic Whips. YouTube. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://youtu.be/XaCxZXeo4V0
This program, videos and content is not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or injury. It is for educational purposes only. If you chose to try any of the exercises presented here do so at your own risk. Please consult a physician before you start any new program.
Not every exercise is safe for everybody. Correct execution of all exercises is imperative to prevent injury. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have any questions about your exercise execution or if an exercise is right for you.
You are responsible for yourself and will not hold Kelly Kuhn or Kelly Kuhn Physical Therapy liable for any injury or illness.