Warm Up and Stretching Before Running — Why and How

By Patrick Drew, updated November, 2013

runningSo… you are about to go out for a 5-mile jog? Totally psyched and raring to go? Great idea… but have you warmed up? Stretched out your muscles? Planning on stretching afterwards?

You definitely should! If you don't you have a high chance of ending up in pain during and after the run — both of which are completely unnecessary. Typically what happens is you are at high risk of straining a muscle and tearing a ligament or tendon — accompanied by a high build-up of lactic acid giving you that burning feeling in your muscles.

Usually any and all of the above tend to put you off doing any more training.

Totally psyched and raring to go? Great idea… but have you warmed up?

You must always warm up before running. This is particularly important. A good warm up increases your blood circulation, enhances muscular strength, increases your heart rate, decreases chances of injury, and mentally and physically prepares you for the workout. Also, when your body is properly warmed up, the flexibility of your muscles is at its best, and exercise can be done in a better way. The importance of warming up can be compared to warming up your car in freezing cold weather. In winters, before you start up your car, you have to warm it up for it to function uninterruptedly. The same principle applies to your workout session.

How to warm up and stretch before running

There are many warm up exercises, a few of which are as follows (please note they are listed in chronological order, starting with the ones that should be done first). These are primarily dynamic moves, focused on elevating the heartbeat and warming up the muscles. It is NOT recommended to do static stretching before running as it has been linked to injuries.

Knee rotations and bends. With your feet close together, place your hands on your knees and rotate them 10 times in one direction and then 10 times in the opposite. Then place your feet shoulder width apart, stand straight and with your arms held out in front of you, parallel with your shoulders, bend down and back up for 10 reps, all the while keeping your back straight and looking directly in front.

Ankle rotations: With your feet close together, raise one foot so that it is resting on the ground only with the ball of the foot. You can then rotate your foot around so that your ankle gets a maximal amount of circular activity. Aim for 10 reps in one direction, 10 in the other, and then swap foot.

Waist rotation: With your feet shoulder width apart, stand straight and place your hands on your hips. Push your hips forwards as far as you can without losing your balance, then rotate around, 10 times in one direction, then 10 times in the other.

leg stretchSpinal rotation: With your feet shoulder width apart, stand straight and hold your arms horizontally straight out to the sides. Now, while keeping your upper body straight, rotate to the left as far as your upper body can go. Hold for 1 second, and then rotate to the right. Repeat 10 times.

Arms rotation: Stand straight and start moving your arm, rotating it 10 times while holding it straight. Once you are done, start rotating the other one, again 10 times. Finally, rotate both of them together 10 times in the same direction.

Neck Rotation: Do some neck rotations, so that your neck is not injured during your workout.

Marching: Start marching for about 5 minutes. While marching, always move your arms in rhythm with the march. I am not talking about trying to emulate a soldier — but merely walk fast (e.g. two times faster than if you are going for a relaxed stroll). This basic motion is very similar to running — and will warm up all the exercise-specific muscles necessary for a good run.

Skipping: Practice skipping for about 25 to 50 yards, gradually increasing the height and range of each skip or jump as you go. Lifting your front leg with each skip also helps a lot. Do this for 100 yards.

Butt kicks: Slowly jog in one direction and try to kick your own butt with the back of each foot as you step forwards. Do this for 100 yards.

Jogging: Do some light jogging before you start running. Now that your body is getting looser and also warmer from the marching, pick up the speed and do some light jogging. Jog (slow run where you could have a conversation) for 100 yards. Then run for 100 yards at a speed where you can't talk). Then jog for 100 yards followed by another 100 yards run.

At this stage you are ready to go for a full run. Note we will discuss running itself in another article, but suffice it to say that you should be pacing yourself at about 60 — 70% of your maximum sprinting speed. With experience (and pacing technology) you will quickly find your optimal speed.

Stretching after running

Warm down: After completing your running or workouts, you should warm down and then do some stretching exercises for your muscles.

Immediately after your full run, continue to walk for about 500 yards. This lets the muscles continue to work, removing lactic acid from the muscle tissue, while not functioning at a high pace. Then carry out a series of stretches. The object is to get rid of the lactic acid and to aid in recovery, while also maintaining your body's flexibility.

Hip flexor stretch: Start off by taking one single huge stride — a lunge. Then bend your front knee to about 90 degrees while raising your back foot onto the ball of the foot. Eventually lengthen the distance between your feet. You should feel a stretch on your hip flexors on the front of your back thigh. Keep the toes of your back foot on the ground. Eventually you can put your back knee on the ground and bend forward and try to stretch the leg even more. Hold this for about 60 seconds then swap. Adjust the position of your knees and feet to suit.

leg stretch Standing quadriceps stretch: Whilst standing on one leg, kick your butt with the back of one foot — catch the foot and pull it into the butt. Keep the knees close together, upper body upright, and push your hips forwards. This will stretch out the front of the thigh. Hold this for about 60 seconds then swap.

Calf stretch: Find a wall and place the toes of one foot up on the wall… about 4 inches from the ground. Then using your arms for balance against the wall and keeping your leg straight, lean forwards. You will feel the stretch on the back of the leg, down at the calf. Hold this for about 60 seconds then swap.

Front leg stretch 1: Stand up and take one normal length stride. Stop there, and whilst keeping the legs straight, lower your upper body as far as possible down to the forward leg. Try to keep the upper body straight. This will stretch out the entire back of the leg — either the calves or the abductor muscles — depending on which are most in need of the stretch. Hold this for about 60 seconds then swap.

Front leg stretch 2: Sit on the ground with one leg stretched out in front of you and your other foot tucked in close to your groin. While keeping your upper body straight, lean out over the straight leg and eventually try to reach your foot, which should be pointing straight up into the sky, toes back towards you. Hold this for about 60 seconds then swap.

Difference between warm up and stretching before running

Although warm up and stretching are believed to be the same by many people, there are however well defined differences between the two. When you do warming up exercises like jogging, you are increasing your body temperature and preparing your body for the workout. On the other hand, stretching exercises like neck or knee rotation help you to focus on stretching muscles and joints of specific body parts.

Stretching and warm up exercises are particularly important for ensuring that your exercise sessions are effective and that you do not suffer any undue injuries. Therefore, whether you are running or doing any exercise, a proper warm up of 15-20 minutes should be done before — and minimum 10 minutes of stretching afterwards.

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