How to Stretch Before Exercise

We are right in the middle of the Louisville Triple Crown. Every Spring since 1984, the city of Louisville hosts a series of road races. It starts with a 5K, followed by a 10K a few weeks later and ends up with a 10 miler. The race distances have varied over the last 33 years, but I have participated in one or more of these races 12 of the last 19 years. Although the race distances and courses have changed many times, one thing has not changed over the years…people stretching while waiting for the race to start. As I stood at the start line for the Rodes City Run 10K last weekend, I got the idea to write this article as I saw many runners (even the elite ones) standing there static stretching.

This is one of my pet-peeves. It’s a classic case of people thinking they are doing the right thing, meanwhile they are potentially setting themselves up for the thing they think they are preventing – injury! Not to mention a slower race time.

No matter what the race, you are guaranteed to see many people standing in the starting corrals stretching their quads, hamstrings and calves. Kick your leg back, grab the top of your foot and pull it against your butt. Oh yeah, feel the pull in the quad! Lock the knees, reach down and try to touch the ground in front of your feet. Man, my hammies are tight! Hurry up, find a curb and stretch out those calf muscles before the starting gun goes off!

The stretches that I just described are known as static stretches. This type of stretch means that it is held in a position for a period of time, usually somewhere between 10 to 30 seconds. It is performed while the body is at rest.

However, many experts and research show that static stretching is much less beneficial than dynamic stretching for improving range of motion for functional movement, like what you want to do before a race.

Dynamic stretching is performed by moving through a range of motion repeatedly, usually 10 to 12 times. Although dynamic stretching requires more coordination than static stretching (because of the movement involved), it is preferred over static stretching based on its benefits in improving functional range of motion and mobility in sports. Dynamic stretching is controlled, smooth, and deliberate, and should never be erratic, and jerky. Dynamic stretching is ideal prior to exercise to prepare the joints for movement and muscles for optimal activation.

Static stretching has been shown to have negative consequences when performed before particularly explosive activities and may affect performance in these types of movements for up to 24 hours. I also found a study from 2010 that found static stretching before an endurance event may lower endurance performance and increase the energy cost of running. That’s pretty cut and dry.

Here's the link to the Abstract for the study on static stretching:

For comparison, there was a similar study done on dynamic stretching. The study had runners perform both a 30-minute run at 65% VO2max and a 30-minute time trial to assess running energy cost and performance, respectively. The subjects repeated both the trials after either 15 minutes of dynamic stretching or just quiet sitting. The conclusion here was that dynamic stretching does not affect running endurance performance in trained male runners. So, with no negative affects (like those found with static stretching), and the benefit of reducing injury, dynamic stretching pre-exercise is clearly the way to go.

Here's the link to the Abstract for the study on dynamic stretching:

There is a place for static stretching, but it’s AFTER the muscles are warmed-up. Ideally, if you want to increase flexibility, perform some static stretches immediately after your workout.

Unless you are habitually late, most people show up with plenty of time to do some dynamic stretching and even a warm-up run before a race. The issue is usually convincing people to do a dynamic warm-up before all those training runs. I used to come up with lots of excuses. I don’t have time, it’s too cold, I just need to get running to warm-up. Or even, I’ll just start out slow and build up as a warm-up. But after an overuse injury 6 years ago, I have made it a point to do a dynamic warm-up before EVERY run. Just ask people that have seen me prior to a triathlon. I’m the dude over in the grass or on the pool deck doing all kids of weird movements. Give it a try, I can all but guarantee it will get you ready to run and mark the beginning of fewer injuries and improved running performance.

So, what’s my pre-run routine? The first few are part of a routine that Kevin from Rudy Ellis Sports Medicine Center introduced me to a little over a year ago. I’ve been doing them ever since. This warm-up will engage your core and get it active. Your pelvis and trunk must be stabilized while running, especially because of the shifting of weight from one leg to another. When you’re running, your back muscles and abs are working hard to stabilize your entire body. This warm-up will wake them up and ensure that they are firing on your run.

Indoors (these require me to lay on the floor, so I do them inside). And no, that is not me in the videos.

Sidelying Thoracic Rotation: Lie with the right side of your body on the floor, bring your hands together and extend your arms in front of your chest. Bend your left knee and hip to about 90 degrees and extend your right leg away from you. Rotate your torso to your left, bringing your left shoulder and hand to the floor, and reach upward in front of your chest with your right hand so that your right arm is perpendicular to the floor. As you reach up, keep your right shoulder blade on the floor. This position increases stability in your shoulder. Perform six to 10 reps on each side of your body.

Lounge and Pound: Start in the same position as the Side Lying Thoracic Rotation above. While on your right side, extend your right leg back behind your body while bringing your left knee up 90 degrees to waist level and rest if on the floor in front of you. Bring your right arm up and rest your head in your right hand with your elbow on the floor (like you are lounging). Now reach out away from your chest with your left hand – pounding an imaginary object a few feet in front of you. Try to keep your right leg straight while tightening your core. Repeat 10 times and then switch sides.

Upside down turtle: Lying on your back, bring both feet off the floor with your upper legs perpendicular to the floor (at a 90-degree angle). Put your right hand on your left knee while extending your left arm up above your head. Extend your right leg straight out and then pull it in to the original position while bringing your left hand to your left knee. Focus on keeping your lower back in contact with the floor. Repeat 10 times for each leg.

Rowing Dog: Start on all-fours. Extend your left leg behind you like you are kicking something directly behind you. While extending your left leg back, bring your right elbow toward your waist. Do 10 reps with each leg.

Outdoors (I do these once I’m outside).

Leg swings: Stand sideways next to a wall, and swing outside leg forward and back, increasing height each time. Swing each leg front to back (10 times) and then side to side (10 times).

Walking lunge with twist: Perform deep walking lunges to stretch the hips, twisting torso away from the back leg.

High-knee Skips: Skip forward and drive your right knee up so it’s about parallel to the ground and drive your foot back down to the ground. Alternate each leg. Keep your back tall with an exaggerated arm swing and make sure you don’t slam your feet on the ground.

Grapevine: Also known as karaoke. Move sideways with your arms out, and cross right over left, right behind left, right over left. Repeat by starting with the left foot first: left over right, left behind right, left over right. Move in one direction for 10 seconds, switch directions and repeat.

There are tons of other warm-up routines and examples of dynamic stretching out there on the internet, so find some that you like and start doing them. And please, I beg you, stop with the static stretching before a run or race!

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Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,

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