Dynamic Stretching for Runners

Dynamic Warm Up for Runners

If something you did could improve performance, decrease risk of injury, and help you feel better on a run, all in less than five minutes’ time, you would do it consistently. While not a magic bullet, dynamic stretching can achieve all those things. 

Unlike static stretching (more on the science here), both theoretical and practical evidence points to the positive impact of dynamic stretching on performance. Dynamic stretching improves joint range of motion without sacrificing muscle tension. 

There are two types of dynamic stretching: active and ballistic. Active dynamic stretching moves through the range of motion several times. Ballistic stretching involves rapid “bouncing” at the end of range of motion and is generally no longer recommended. For the sake of this article, dynamic stretching will refer to active dynamic stretching. 

What the Research Says About Dynamic Stretching

The scientific literature does not reach a completely clear consensus on dynamic stretching. A 2015 and 2019 study performed by the same group of researchers (Yamaguchi, Takizawa, Shibata, et al) reached two different conclusions about the role of dynamic stretching in a warm-up. In part, this may be due to inconsistent dynamic stretching protocols used throughout studies. Is it leg swings, lunges, or A-skips? Does the timing of the dynamic warm-up make a difference? What confounding variables are present?

That considered, let’s delve into what some of the research says. A 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that, while no effects were seen on running economy or oxygen uptake (VO2), velocity at 90% of VO2max improved in response to dynamic stretching. Those who performed dynamic stretching (1 set of 10 reps for 5 lower body muscle groups) saw improvements in both time to exhaustion and total running distance. 90% of VO2max is approximately a 3K to 5K race – meaning that dynamic stretching would improve performance at these distances. Most likely, since the improvements were related to endurance rather than oxygen uptake, the results could be extrapolated to longer distances. 

A 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that dynamic stretching results in a small increase in lower limb force production during treadmill running. For many runners, increase force production equates to faster running. 

However, a 2012 study in the same journal saw no difference between 15 minutes of dynamic stretching and 15 minutes of quiet sitting on a 30-minute time trial for well-trained male runners. Interestingly, the runners who performed dynamic stretching had a higher energy cost on the run. However, that could be due to confounding variables. 

When Should You Do Dynamic Stretching?

Timing does matter for dynamic stretches. A 2019 study in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport observed that a dynamic stretching routine (same one from the above 2015 study) led to a shorter time to exhaustion at 90% VO2max when performed after a warm-up run. Now, that’s just one study – not Gospel truth – and there could have been numerous confounding variables. It does suggest the idea that runners should complete dynamic stretching before any running at all. Independent of this study, many coaches suggest dynamic stretching prior to any running. (This differs from strides and drills, which are best done after a warm-up jog.) 

What are the Benefits of Dynamic Stretching?

In terms of performance, dynamic stretching has zero to positive effect on performance. Most likely, this depends on the runner; we all know those genetic outliers who never warm-up, never foam roll, and run all their easy runs too fast, yet outperform those who train optimally. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching will not impair your performance.

The benefits of dynamic stretching go beyond performance metrics. Dynamic stretching prepares the body for movement – which is essential for runners, especially early in the morning or after work. Dynamic stretching improves the range of motion of your joints and begins to elevate both heart rate and core temperature. This ensures that you are not going into your run cold. 

Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist and biomechanics researcher, emphasizes the nervous system benefits of dynamic stretching. In his book Running Rewired, he remarks, “Some light movements, such as leg swings, hops, and other stuff…effectively prepares your nervous system to move smoother….[Dynamic stretching] resets the muscle to allow you to move smoothly.” 

The most significant benefit of dynamic stretching is an improvement in mobility before a run. The end goal of dynamic stretching is mobility. For runners, mobility equates to a more economical stride and a lower risk of injury. Lack of mobility in the hips may hinder glute activation and proper running form. Full mobility in the hips facilitates a smooth, efficient stride. 

What Should My Dynamic Warm-Up Include?

A dynamic stretching routine should be specific to the sport. A swimmer, weight lifter, and runner will perform slightly different dynamic stretches according to the demands of their sport. For a runner, that includes movement in the sagittal plane, with some frontal plane (for stability). These movements will focus on warming up the hips and glutes. 

Dynamic stretching does not have to be a complex, prolonged routine. Pick a few dynamic stretches and do them consistently before each run. Based on how your body feels, customize the routine. You can try these dynamic stretches (click link for video demonstrations). Alternatively, a simple routine of 10 leg swings, 10 lateral band walks, and 10 monster band walks is effective and quick.

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22 Responses

  1. Thank you for this information, Laura!
    That quote from Jay Dicharry resonates with me: “Some light movements…effectively prepares your nervous system to move smoother.”
    The older I get, the more I need to prepare my body for running. I feel it really makes a difference!

  2. I really notice the difference when I use dynamic stretching to warm up before a run. I kind of just do whatever feels good, but usually I include lunges and leg swings. Dynamic stretching after a run can feel really good too! (or doing them throughout the day).

  3. I started incorporating dynamic stretches a few years ago, and have really noticed an improvement in my performance and a decrease in injury/discomforts. Often times, I also do 10 flights of stairs before I head out…it activates the glutes and my legs get a good warm-up (as well as my heart).

  4. I do dynamic stretching before I lift weights but I’m not so good about it when I’m heading out to run! I need to be better about it. Usually, if my Garmin is taking long to connect to GPS, I’ll throw in a few stretches, lol.

  5. I find my runs go a bit smoother when I’ve done some dynamic stretches and I’m pleased to say leg swings are usually my go-to. My husband swears by push-ups before each run – he says it gets his heart pumping and he feels more energised when he starts – but not sure whether any science backs this up. But he certainly feels more alive for it!

  6. Incorporating dynamic stretching and being consistent about it has made all the difference for me. I am also doing it before cycling and strength and find the benefit there as well. Just 5 min makes a huge difference for me!

  7. I’m not good at this. I’m always in a rush to get started but I have to be somewhere – usually work.

    When I have been part of training groups, it is always done and I know what to do…just got to do it.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Interesting stuff, Laura! Although I’ve certainly been known to skip it (usually due to cold weather) — mostly I’m really good about it.

    I know even on a warm up run, it takes me a good couple of miles before I feel warmed up. Also good to know that it’s better to do before you start running — because that’s what I already do. 🙂

  9. These are great tips. I admit to being terrible about stretching, but it would probably do me a whole world of good. In my head, it takes up so much time, but it would be worth it.

  10. I love how well researched your posts are. So much great information! I have always had my clients perform dynamic stretching (similar to what you prescribe) but I’ve just started doing it myself (I know, do as I say…). Even better, my husband has finally started doing a routine too. Yes, it just involves a few leg swings, but we’re on our way!

  11. I usually do some things around the house before I head out for a run so I consider that my dynamic stretching. If I’m short on time and need to get out the door quick I might do some leg swings of hop in place for a minute or two to get the blood flowing.

  12. Dynamic stretching is going to vary from person to person, especially as other sports are taken into account. These are good tips to help others build their own approaches to athletics, though!

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