A Dynamic Warmup: A Key Tool to Improve Running Economy

 

What if I told you that by simply adding a dynamic warmup into your running routine, the results likely will include becoming a faster, stronger, and more resilient runner with a decreased risk for injury. And it’s free of cost, simple, and only requires a little extra time! Oftentimes, a warmup is the first thing to go when you’re running low on time and just trying to get out the door. It’s one of those things that runners know they SHOULD be doing, but don’t actually implement a dynamic warmup routine fit enough to do the trick. If you’ve ever dreaded the question from your physical therapist of what your pre-run warmup routine looks like, then this one’s for you! 

 

First we can start with understanding WHY a running warmup is important. Whether you’re a morning, afternoon, or evening runner, it’s important to get your muscles primed for activity prior to your run. Without a warmup, you significantly increase your risk of muscle, tendon, or ligament injuries. 

 

Specifically, it’s been shown that a dynamic warmup is best for preparing your body for a workout, preventing muscular injuries, increasing joint flexibility, and optimizing performance. According to a study done in 2019 that looked at the effects of dynamic stretching on the hamstring muscles, it was found that dynamic stretching has sustained effects on range of motion and passive stiffness of the hamstring. This study looked at the effects of a dynamic warmup on passive knee extension range of motion, passive torque at onset of pain (a measure of stretch tolerance), and passive stiffness of the muscle-tendon unit. The results of this study indicate that when performed prior to intense exercise, a dynamic warmup is beneficial in terms of increasing muscular flexibility and decreasing stiffness (Iwata, 2019). This is important since the more mobile a joint/muscle is, the greater the active range of motion it can achieve. Therefore, allowing an increased ability for muscle recruitment during the activity. As a result, this leads to increased speed, power, and energy at the same exertion level. 

 

A dynamic warmup is also responsible for increasing body temperature and gently stressing your muscles and joints to prepare for activity. According to David Behm, an exercise scientist and professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, this combination of heat and stress together create what’s called a thixotropic effect. This means that the muscles and tendons become less stiff/resistant and move more fluidly. A dynamic warmup is also superior over a static warmup (holding stretches remaining in place for a period of time) due to its ability to activate intracellular sensors known as muscle spindles. Muscle spindles are responsible for detecting the stretch of a muscle and sense how much and how fast a muscle is lengthened and shortened as the muscle contracts. As a result, the muscle spindle assists in the mind to muscle connection (neuromuscular connection) and results in more responsive muscles and an easier ability to activate your muscles appropriately. On the contrary, according to Dr. Behm, the opposite effect occurs with static stretching. When completing static stretches, the muscle spindles are suppressed, which slows down the messaging between your brain and body in order to help reduce tension/tightness. Therefore, a dynamic warmup helps with performance during a run (better muscle recruitment/activation = greater power = faster speeds at less effort) and reduces injury risk (Kuzma 2023). 

 

Now that we know why it’s important to warmup before running, HOW can we create a routine that allows for consistency and success, and won’t fall by the wayside as soon as life gets busy or training amps up. It’s helpful to break it down and look at the individual components of a warmup. 

 

A good running warmup should include mobility, stability, muscle activation, and power. It’s important to make note that each individual is different, and a warmup routine should not be a one size fits all. What one person needs in a warmup may be something completely different from what another person needs, just based on activity level, injury history, individual biomechanics, lifestyle, etc. It’s also important to note that a warmup that you’d do for a long run may look very different from a warmup that you may do for a speed track session. 

 

Although engaging in the same movement (running) at different speeds, you’ll be utilizing your muscles very differently, and therefore, different activation exercises pre-run may be needed. This is where the concept of slow twitch (type I) vs. fast twitch (type II) muscle fibers comes in. Slow-twitch muscle fibers support long distance endurance activities like marathon running, while fast-twitch muscle fibers support quick, powerful movements such as sprinting or high intensity interval training (HIIT). Since both are very different activities, it’s incredibly important to activate your muscles specifically for what activity you’ll be doing. 

 

For the slow, long distance activities which activate your slow-twitch (type I) muscle fibers you’ll want to focus on endurance, mobility, and stability. You can add in a few plyometric drills to get your heart rate up and muscles warm, however it won’t be as necessary as a speed session on the track. Key exercises to mobilize the spine, hips, knees, and foot/ankle include walking lunges, side lunges, leg swings, heel raises, knee hugs, and heel/toe walks. You want exercises that keep you moving to increase blood flow and raise your heart rate slightly while also stretching the muscle/joint toward near its active end range of motion. As a result, you can achieve a greater active range of motion during the running gait, allowing greater muscle recruitment which will in turn help improve gait mechanics and decrease compensations and injury risk. 

 

For the higher intensity speed based activities that activate  fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers, you can include the exercises and components listed above for the long distance runs, however you’ll want to be sure to add in some plyometrics and power based drills as well. This may include A-skips, B-skips, pogo hops, jump squats, butt kicks, high knees, etc. Incorporating these movements into your running warmup decreases your injury risk for muscle strains since you are moving your muscles through a similar range of motion and power/force output  as what is needed for sprinting. 

 

A recent study done in 2020 looked at the effects of a plyometric warmup protocol on running economy in recreational endurance athletes. Specifically, this study explored the impact of two different warmup protocols (resistance exercises or plyometric exercises) on running economy. The procedure for testing here included a 10 minute self-paced jog on a motorized treadmill followed by six 10-second strides with a 1 minute rest between each. For the resistance protocol, the participants completed the same procedure while wearing a weighted vest at 20% bodyweight. The plyometric protocol consisted of squat jumps, scissor jumps, and double leg bounds, all at 2 sets of 8 repetitions each. The study concluded that a plyometric warmup can improve running economy in recreational athletes, with the control protocol and resistance protocol showing no significant changes in running economy (Wei, 2020). Every runner wants to improve running economy, it’s what makes you a stronger and faster runner with less perceived effort. Allowing you to reach your goals and new personal bests! If that can be done by simply adding in some plyometrics to a warmup routine, it seems like a good place to start to optimize your performance.

 

As mentioned earlier, each person is different in terms of what they need in a running warmup. If you’re someone with less mobile hips, you’ll likely focus more on hip mobility drills. If you’re someone who’s had chronic hamstring issues, you’ll likely incorporate more hamstring activation exercises compared to someone else. Working with a physical therapist and run coach to determine your needs and limitations is the best way to create a personalized comprehensive warmup routine that works for you. 

 

A good word of advice is start simple and don’t overcomplicate it! The more complicated you make it, the less likely you are to remain consistent with it. I’m sure you’ve heard that consistency with running and training is key, and that pertains to a warmup routine as well. It was mentioned earlier that a good running warmup boosts performance and decreases injury risk. Runners are always trying to increase load and mileage while also maintaining that volume at a level that will minimize injury. It often feels like a seesaw, and tipping too far in either direction will offset the balance required for success. A dynamic running warmup routine is one tool to add that will help that seesaw remain more steady as it allows you to progress your running a touch further while decreasing injury risk. As a result, you become a stronger, faster, happier runner and can more easily achieve the running goals you set for yourself this year! 

 

Need help creating a warm up plan or unsure which exercises are right for you? Planning for a race and wanting help to remain injury free and hit your goals? Contact us (Email: info@perfectstridept.com – Call: 917-494-4284) to schedule a visit with one of our Doctors of Physical Therapy, who are also RRCA certified Running Coaches. 

Written by Karli Conzo, PT, DPT

 

References:

  1. Iwata, Masahiro. “Dynamic Stretching Has Sustained Effects on Range of Motion and Passive Stiffness of the Hamstring Muscles.” PubMed Central (PMC), 1 Mar. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6370952.
  2. Kuzma, Cindy. “What Is a Dynamic Warm-Up and What Exercises Should It Include?” The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/01/05/well/move/dynamic-warm-up-exercises.html
  3. Wei, ChenGuang, et al. “A Plyometric Warm-Up Protocol Improves Running Economy in Recreational Endurance Athletes.” Frontiers in Physiology, vol. 11, Mar. 2020, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00197.

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