All athletes – and yes, recreational runners are athletes! – need mobility to perform well. Mobility (sometimes called “dynamic flexibility”) is the range of motion you have during active muscular contractions. When you increase your mobility, you increase the range of motion you can move a joint through. This is different than flexibility, which is the total range of motion. Greater range of motion is associated with improved performance, especially in any sport that requires the application of force.
While we may not think of running as a power-based sport, it is. Force times velocity is power. As Dr. Skiba explains in his book Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes, “Power is the measure of work rate, or work divided by time…when someone says ‘work,’ you should be thinking ‘distance’…If you run 5 minutes faster [in a 5K], you still did the same amount of work, but you have generated more power. So when someone says ‘power’, you should be thinking ‘speed’.”
The interaction of mobility and power is more pronounced in sprinting since limited mobility can misplace force in the kinetic chain. However, the concept still applies to long-distance running. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that sagittal and frontal plane kinematic parameters including range of motion in the hips and knees enhanced running economy.
These dynamic stretches for runners focus on developing mobility in chronically weak areas for runners: the hips, ankles, and upper back. When done consistently, these mobility exercises will also strengthen the neuromuscular pathways. As those pathways bolster, you will notice improved running form. For example, improving ankle mobility may lead to a better forward lean and less ground contact time.
Perform each of these movements for 6-10 reps per side. You can do them before runs or strength training, after runs, or anytime you fit them in. Aim to include these in your routine a few times per week.
Disclaimer: This is not a substitute for physical therapy. If you have pain while running or pronounced limitations in your range of motion, please see a doctor of physical therapy.
Mobility-Enhancing Dynamic Stretches for Runners
Half-Kneeling Ankle Dorsiflexion
Whether you are running or doing a squat, ankle mobility is essential for healthy movement patterns. If you suffer from Achilles, plantar fasciitis, or other ankle/foot issues, improving ankle mobility should be a priority.
Come into a half-kneeling position, with one knee on the ground directly below your hip and the other leg bent with the foot on the ground. Open your hip so that your knee is in line with your ankle. Gently press your knee forward toward your toes while keeping your heel firmly rooted on the ground. Be mindful that your knee does not drift off of the center of your toes.
Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
A drastic anterior pelvic tilt can increase your risk of running injury. That’s not to say you must run with a stiff pelvic tuck; instead, you want to train your body to naturally posture with a neutral pelvis. The dynamic half-kneeling hip flexor stretch trains a neutral pelvis position while also moving the hips through the sagittal plane of motion (the same plane that running occurs in).
Kneel on the floor with one leg bent in front of you and the other with the knee down directly below your hip. Check the orientation of your hips; your pelvis should be in a neutral position. You can then either gently press your hips forward in this position or grab the foot of your kneeling leg and then gently press forward. Move slowly forward to back, keeping your hips in the neutral position.
Thread the Needle Stretch
You may not think of running as a movement occurring in the transverse plane (rotational). However, small degrees of traverse plane movement do occur in running. As described in a 2016 study in Gait and Posture, thoracic spine mobility allows arm swing to continue to counter-balance leg swings as running speed increases. Thoracic spine mobility is not the first thought when considering stretches for runners, but it is a vital aspect of mobility training.
The thread the needle stretch targets the range of motion in the thoracic spine. Come into a quadruped position (hands and knees on the ground) with your hands directly below your shoulders. Gently draw your navel to your spine and find a neutral, flat back position. Lift your right arm and rotate through the torso to extend your arm toward the ceiling; then rotate in the opposite direction as you guide your arm behind your grounded arm.
Hip Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs)
Whether the cause is running or desk work, tight hips are a common complaint for runners. Enter CARs, or controlled articular rotations. These movements are dynamic stretches that deliberately move a joint through its full range of motion. The desired goal is to return to the joint to its normal ability to move smoothly through its range of motion.
To perform, begin in a quadruped position with hips neutral. While keeping your core engaged and back stable, slowly push your knee out to the side (as with a fire hydrant exercise), then rotate the hip to press your foot up and back (into a donkey kick). Pause, then slowly reverse the movement. (See the video for more clarity!)
To be fully effective, you want to maintain control throughout the hip CAR. Do not move quickly! These can also be done standing.
Other Methods for Improving Your Mobility
Sport-specific mobility is not improved through hip circles alone. These dynamic stretches for runners can help, but they are part of an integrative approach. Dynamic warm-ups before runs, strength training, and hill running all require your body to move through various angles of hip flexion/extension, ankle dorsiflexion/plantarflexion, hip abduction/adduction, and knee flexion/extension. When these are done repeatedly and consistently, your range of motion for running will improve.