Stretching to loosen up muscles before a run may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s not quite that simple, as we discover...
For decades, running coaches have recommended that we do a set of stretches before we go for a run, with the perceived wisdom being that ‘static stretches’, such as a glute stretch, are the way to go. However, recent research has discovered that the answer to an effective pre-run warm-up actually lies in a style of stretches called ‘dynamic stretches’. Even better, by ditching the static stretches in favour of dynamic ones, you may actually see some speed gains, too.
What is a static stretch?
Just to make the distinction clear, a static stretch is when you hold a muscle at a point where you feel a stretching sensation for up to 30 seconds and then repeat. A hamstring stretch is a good example.
What is a dynamic stretch?
In contrast, a dynamic stretch is an active movement, where you move a limb through its range of motion and then repeat. Think arm circles, hip circles, lunges, torso twists and leg swings. The ‘dynamic’ bit comes from the fact that you don’t hold the pose.
Static stretching as a warm-up can actually diminish your muscle strength and worsen your running and jumping performance.
Why are static stretches no longer recommended pre-run?
While scientists agree that static stretching increases a joint’s range of movement and it’s fantastic post-run, a 2012 study found that static stretching as a warm-up can actually diminish your muscle strength and worsen your running and jumping performance. This is a phenomenon known as ‘stretch-induced strength loss’.
The reasons for this aren’t properly understood, but there are a number of theories. Some sports scientists believe that because static stretches affect the contraction of your nerves, the electrical signals telling your muscles to contract are slowed.
Why are dynamic stretches considered better for before a run?
When you think about the movements involved in a dynamic stretch session, you can start to see why they might be beneficial as a running warm-up.
First, because your movements are fluid with dynamic stretches, it helps to expand your blood vessels, which in turn increases oxygen and blood flow to joints, muscles and surrounding connective tissues, which helps muscles and joints become more flexible.
Second, because dynamic stretching involves repeating the same move, your range of motion and reach gently increases each time, while also increasing levels of synovial fluid around the joint – so keeping it lovely and lubricated.
Third, because dynamic stretches are active movements, they raise heart rate and muscle temperature.
Add it all together and you can see a positive effect on your running performance, with numerous studies suggesting that dynamic stretching improves muscle power and even helps your endurance on long runs.
Numerous studies suggest that dynamic stretching improves muscle power and even helps your endurance on long runs
Why are dynamic stretches good for runners?
Yet again, there’s no single theory for why exactly dynamic stretches lead to better running performance, but one thesis suggests that the combination of extra blood flow, flexibility plus cardio means that nerves may transmit impulses faster to muscles after a dynamic stretch session, and it’s this that could be responsible for improved running performance.
What are some good pre-run dynamic stretches?
The big distinction between a static stretch and a dynamic stretch is that there’s active movement with a dynamic stretch, as the examples below demonstrate:
Stand with your feet together and extend one leg out in front, bringing the opposite hand to touch your toes. Lower your leg back to the floor. Repeat with the opposite side. Continue for 10 on each side.
Holding a wall for balance with your left hand, swing your left leg out in front of you, keeping it straight. Next swing it back behind you, creating a momentum. Do 10-15 times.
Lateral leg swings
These are just like the leg swings, except you swing your left leg out to the left and then in front of your body to the right. Switch legs. Repeat for 10-15 times.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Lift your left thigh so it is parallel to the ground, then lower your foot to the ground. Switch legs. Repeat for 10-15 times.
Stand and stretch out your arms to the side. Circle them forwards for 5-10 repetitions and then backwards for 5-10.
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