Runners are always after the Holy Grail when it comes to speed. Intervals, speed work, core work, strength work — all are components of a competitive runner’s tool kit. But one type of work that is often left out, yet can pay big dividends, is dynamic stretching to increase range of motion.
For those who assume they move just fine, consider this: Mobility can influence speed and performance, decrease the chances for injury, and improve long-term quality of life by keeping you in the game longer, says Trent Nessler, PT, MPT, DPT, CEO of Accelerated Conditioning and Learning, based in Nashville, Tenn. And timing is of the essence: “As we age, our tissues dry out and so you must address flexibility for greater shock absorption,” he says. “You want to think about your longevity and ability to stay active.”
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Making Room for Mobility
Getting older isn’t the only hurdle though. Even if you’re logging major mileage each week, sitting at a desk for the rest of your day will work against most runners’ ability to stay pliable. And that’s where many injuries and decreased performance come in. “Our mobility can be compromised for many different reasons,” says Robert Gillanders, PT, DPT, with Sports and Spinal Physical Therapy, Washington, DC. “Past injuries, training stress, body type and a lifestyle that involves sitting all day can all play a role in how much range of motion you have.”
And yet, according to Nessler, 95 percent of runners do nothing to maximize their flexibility and range of motion. This is where dynamic stretching can be a game changer. “With dynamic stretches, you take your body through a full range of motion,” says Nessler. “You work on many things, including flexibility and proprioception.”
Mobility Moves for Runners
While both Gillanders and Nessler are proponents of movement as a way to decrease injury rates and increase performance, both are sticklers for proper movement. “If you perform dynamic stretches incorrectly, you’re just reinforcing improper movement,” says Nessler.
So which dynamic exercises should you be doing and how do you do them correctly? Nessler recommends adding these three moves to your regular routine, either pre-run or as part of your strength and conditioning program.
1. Dynamic Lunge
There’s a time and a place for static stretching, but when gearing up for movement, dynamic stretching offers maximal benefits. In addition to increasing blood flow, heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature, dynamic exercises such as this dynamic lunge, wake up the neuromuscular system while prepping the body for movement patterns that more closely resemble running.
How to: Begin standing with legs hip-width apart. Lunge forward, focusing on keeping the front knee straight ahead and not allowing your knee to pass beyond your toes (a). Place your opposite hand on the floor and bring the same side elbow towards the arch of the forward foot, allowing your front hip to flex and extend the opposite hip. Make sure the front knee is not flaying out (abducting) and that the hips remain in alignment (b). Next, straighten your front knee and place both hands on opposite sides of your front knee. Keeping your back foot straight, toes pointing forward, drive your back heel toward the floor (c). Lunge all the way through without letting your knee cave inwards, often a compensation for weakness in the glutes (d). Switch to the other side and repeat for 6-8 reps.
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2. Dynamic Sumo Squat
Due to tight hips and poor ankle flexibility caused by years of sitting, many runners have a hard time getting into a proper squat. This move will help athletes learn (or re-learn) the proper movement pattern, in addition to opening the hips, and loosening the legs in preparation for running.
How to: Standing with feet hip-width apart, grab hold of your toes and squat as low as you can comfortably, making sure you don’t let your knees pass your toes or allow your spine to flex forward (chest touching knees) to compensate for not flexing the hips (a). Keeping hold of your toes, straighten your legs to a fully extended position (b). Next, walk your hands out to a push-up position, spine long and straight (c). Maintaining a stable spine, engage the glutes, hamstrings and core, and lift one leg up a few inches off the ground (d). From that position, perform one push-up, (being careful not to arch the back or allow either hip to drop), then lower the leg back to the ground, and repeat with the opposite leg (e). Using a straight leg toe walk-up, slowly have your feet meet your hands and come up to standing (f). Repeat for 6-8 reps.
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3. High Knee Toe Up
Tight hips and poor balance impact most runners’ ability to run with good form. The following move helps athletes improve hip mobility and enhance proprioceptive ability, leading to a more efficient stride and better single-leg stability.
How to: Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Maintaining good posture (straight spine and chest up), pull your knee to your chest (a). Simultaneously, perform a toe raise on the planted foot. Be sure to keep the hips square, and maintain a strong base with the standing hip, knee and ankle all in line (b). Release the knee and march one step forward, repeating the same motion on the opposite side (c), Repeat for 10-12 reps.
These are three general, all-around movements that can enhance any runners’ toolkit for staying healthy. Gillanders says that runners should include a few minutes of activity like these, or other simple drills as a warm-up, as well as a cool down to each run. He also suggests a less sedentary day all-around. “People finish their runs and then go sit at a desk for eight hours,” he says. “There are easy ways to incorporate simple movement into your day and reap the benefits.”