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Warm Up and Cool Down Like a Runner: The Static vs. Dynamic Stretching Debate

Hey Runner, does this feel like you?

"There are millions of stretches, Dr. Whitt. I get 10 minutes after a run to stretch. Which ones should I throw into my a daily rotation?

Not to mention, should I be doing dynamic or static stretching?

…I just want to maximize what I'm doing!"

I agree.


Something like warming up and cooling down should be simple. But it tends to feel overwhelming and complicated and when you start looking into "what should I be doing?"

So what do you think about a power circuit?

A circuit that could potentially do-it-all in a pinch?

A quickie that works BOTH as a warm up and cool down when you're pressed for time?

Would you be interested?

Ok, you can think about it for a minute.

But in the meantime…

Look at this stat:

"Up to 75.4% of runners…name static stretching as the most frequent warm-up strategy to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. The popularity of static stretching among the athletic population can be misleading, as it has been shown to affect athletic performance and injury rates in a negative way and may have little to no significant impact on soreness levels when used as a pre-activity technique" (Ullman).

Holy guacamole, running fit fam.

No wonder we're all so confused!

75% of us are still hard-core static stretching before we run while the other 25% is trying something new…and that's only talking about a warm up!

But why the confusion? Well, there's this quote from the same research article:

"Static stretching…demonstrated a decrease in variables associated with injury over extended periods" (Ullman).

Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Didn't we just say static stretching is "bad"?

And now it's not?

Aaaahh, literature review and research. You know all the answers and none of the answers all at the same time. And the best answer is always, "it depends".

Here's one more quote for you which will help clear this up:

"However, due to impacts on short term performance, static stretching may be best suited for post-activity recovery rather than as part of dynamic warm-up. Static stretching following running activity in combination with recruiting and strengthening proper musculature using isometric hold prior to performance may prove to be an efficient training method…" (Ullman).

Wow.

What a kerfuffle already.

With this week's blog post I want to help clear the air a little. I want to help you decide how best to use those precious 10mins before or after your run. Because clearly, every runner is different and every body is unique in how it responds to a warm up or cool down. And just from those 3 quotes, we've already learned static stretching isn't so great for a warm up but might not be the worse for you in a cool down. But those dynamic stretching exercises are the new gold standards for a solid warm up.

So let's sift through the research and literature together and see what we come up with.

You ready? Let's run down this rabbit hole!



What's the deal with static stretching?

I think it starts with this:

"The inclusion of stretching protocols in training programs is based more strongly on tradition than on science" (Moscão).

How so?

Well, it's been engrained in us since we can remember in P.E. classes or after-school sports. Because at one time, static stretching was the gold standard to achieve this ambiguous goal of being flexible.

But what does flexibility mean?

You can touch your toes or that you can get your leg behind your head?

The bigger question is, as a runner, do you really need to get your foot to ear? It's these vague assumptions that I think a lot of runners continue to chase because they're going off what they've been taught.

So let's flip the script and have a dialogue.

Let's ask the question of: WHY isn't static stretching the gold standard anymore?

I think we can find an answer here:

We think of static stretching as a way to "promote…passive ROM (range of motion; think 'mobility')…through an increase in muscle extensibility (aka: muscle length) " in hopes to avoid injury. However, it's "suggested that most musculoskeletal injuries occur far from the ROM limits [aka mobility deficits], raising doubts concerning the relevance of increasing ROM [increasing mobility]. Indeed, we have to consider that more ROM [aka too much mobility] may allow the joint to move into perilous situations."

Um,…ruh roh, Shaggy.

Why does this author say all that?

Because of this next part:

"Special care should be taken when passive stretching…since the healthy limits of ROM [mobility] may easily be surpassed by the application of external forces (meaning, stretching too aggressively with too much pressure)" (Moscão).

Notice, the author isn't saying "never stretch" or "you're going to turn into a limp, wet noodle from static stretching!"

What they're telling us is "[static] stretching [alone] does not reduce injury risk."

I'm summarizing different points from the article to make it more succinct for you, but they also talk about proposing a warm up that involves many different tools in place of or to be used alongside of static stretching (these fancy other tools include: "alternative methods for developing a range of motion: (i) proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation; (ii) dynamic stretching; and (iii) resistance or strength training") (Moscão).

I know…it can get a little overwhelming, can't it?

Don't worry, stay with me!

It'll all make sense.

So if static stretching alone isn't the gold standard anymore for warm ups because it can negatively impact sprinting and other running performance aspects, then what do you do instead?

Those fancy "alternative methods".

Some of which can mean dynamic stretching.

Which brings us too…

Why is dynamic stretching "better"?

Honestly, there's differing opinions on this.

Some authors say:

"Dynamic stretching has been…replace[ing] static stretching because [it's] been shown to improve performance parameters such as agility, endurance, strength, power, and anaerobic capacity" (Coons).

Others say the running performance improvement is minimal (Moscão).

However, most authors agree on the fact that dynamic stretching will help you achieve the range of motion/mobility improvements you're looking for with the added bonus of decreasing your risk for injury (Coons, Moscão, Ullman).

That all sounds pretty good, right? But what does that mean for you as a runner?


It means dynamic stretching does a better job than static stretching at priming and preparing your body for movement and running. Dynamic stretching talks to your muscles in a language they understand: through movement which is taking those muscles, tissues, and joints through a healthy range of mobility that you're about to spend a lot of time in! Dynamic stretching gives your body a "preview of coming attractions". It's a tool used to activate and prepare.

So what makes dynamic stretching so "magical"?

Honestly, it's the same thing that happens in strength training. (Yup!) Which is the contraction and elongation of a muscle: aka active movement (Coons) (Moscão).

What all of this says is actually something pretty simple:

Your body is made for movement! It responds best to active movement (think dynamic stretching) rather than passive movement (think static stretching). If you've played around with any of the mobility circuits I've made, then you've already seen and felt the difference! (looking for one of those? Check these out!)

But all of those reasons above are why all my mobility circuits are focused around:

  • active movement

  • healthy movement of a joint

  • and healthy movement of the muscles surrounding the joint sometimes with more or less body weight involved (Coons).

Again, WHY?

Because our body responds to effort, work, load! It responds to moving fast, having to react, being forced to hold us upright.

So next steps would be…

What should I be doing for a warm up and cool down?

Short answer: Do what works for you.

Because your warm up sequence is going to look different than mine, and that’s a GOOD thing! (Because I doubt you're the exact same as me: struggling with right ankle instability resulting in affected right glute activation which dumps everything in to my right quad which struggles with eccentric control, blah, blah, blah…)

Starting to see the point?

We're all individuals.

So we all need certain drills or mobility exercises that are specific to us.

However…

Long answer: However, we're all runners. So that means, (lucky for you!) there are some common issues, common trends, that most runners struggle with.

So here's that power circuit I talked about at the beginning. A quickie that you can use in a pinch for a warm up AND a cool down that addresses common issues for runner's while also incorporating dynamic exercises all those studies talked about.

Warm Up and Cool Down Like a Runner

(1-2 rounds; preferably in this order)

  • Windshield wipers/shin boxes // x10-15

  • Crawl sequence // x5 of each segment

  • High plank knee to opposite elbows // x20 each side

  • Single leg bridge w/ both arm pulling into the ground // x12 each side

  • Runner's lunge to runner's stance w/ jump // x5-8 each side



Now, as this circuit is written, it's definitely biased towards being a warm up.

So how do you make it a cool down?

You take out that last exercise and add in any stretches or foam rolling that works for you.

Ta-da! Simple.

Also, in all honesty…

I even timed myself, running fit fam.

It only took me 2:16 minutes to complete 1 circuit.

And that was me booking it!

Why?

To demonstrate that a decent warm up and cool down CAN be completed in 5 minutes and CAN include mobility and activation.

Now is this is a competition to "beat my warm up or cool down time"?

Noooooo.

My challenge to you is to TAKE LONGER!

Yup.

Take longer than my 2 minutes and 16 seconds.

For both a warm up and a cool down, spend time in positions where you feel a little tight. Take your time activating your core with that plank exercise because it's much more than core: it's upper body push stability combined with single leg strength and balance while working on your thoracic rotation!

….again, that was kind of a lot.

But it's to demonstrate there is thought, purpose, and design behind each of these movements. There's a reason WHY these are common exercises I give out to my runner-patients.

It's because these pack a punch.

In not a whole lot of time.

Are they stretches per say?

No, not really.

Does that mean you can't do your favorite hamstring or hip flexor stretch before running?

Oh heck no!

It means you CAN keep your stretch if it works for you because the above circuit is fast and furious-designed to maximally activate and restore mobility in a short amount of time.

(Because secretly, between you and me, despite all my fancy exercises, there are definitely times in my run and after my run that I need to stretch my left calf the old fashion way on a curb or lamp post. It takes a minute or 2. And it gets the job done.)

So next time you're tight on time but you KNOW you need a dynamite, fast and furious warm up or you want to give your body the best possible edge for recovery, give this one a try.


I promise it won't disappoint.


Let me know what you think of it in the comments below! I can't wait to hear if you tried it!

Till next time, Run strong and Dare to Train Differently.


Dr. Marie Whitt // @dr.whitt.fit

***************************************


References

Coons, J., Gould, C., Kim, J., Farley, R., & Caputo, J. (2017). Dynamic stretching is effective as static stretching at increasing flexibility. Journal Of Human Sport And Exercise, 12(4). doi: 10.14198/jhse.2017.124.02


Moscão, J., Vilaça-Alves, J., & Afonso, J. (2020). A review of the effects of static stretching in human mobility and strength training as a more powerful alternative: Towards a different paradigm. Motricidade, 16(1), 18-27. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.6063/motricidade.20191


ULLMAN, Z., FERNANDEZ, M., & KLEIN, M. (2021). Effects of Isometric Exercises versus Static Stretching in Warm-up Regimens for Running Sport Athletes: A Systematic Review. International Journal Of Exercise Science, 14(6), 1204-1218. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijes/


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