Updated: Feb 11, 2020
When I ask clients whether they warm up before they run they usually say ‘yeah I run a bit easier for a bit before hitting the main pace’. And whilst this is important - you definitely want to warm up the muscles and start waking up your different energy systems before you go out and do some hard intervals - you could get so much more out of the work out if you also include a mobility warm up.
What is a mobility warm up?
Mobility refers to building the range of motion at the joints. If you imagine a typical day you’ve probably spent the vast majority of it sitting down – in the car or train, at a desk at work, eating at a table, on the sofa watching tv and so on. When you sit you shorten the angle at the hip, and because your body adapts to what you ask it to do (that’s training!) you end up with short, tight hip flexors.
In contrast when you’re running, you want good hip extension (the leg to be able to go back behind you, whilst maintaining a neutral pelvis – more on in a bit). So we go from sitting all day, ‘training’ our bodies to get good at being tight at the front of the hip, and then expect them to go out and do a hard run session, and do the exact opposite of what we’ve been asking them to do.
The issue is compounded by the fact that our hip flexors work as a pair with our glutes (bum muscles) – they pull the leg forwards (flexing at the hip) whilst the glutes pull the leg back behind us (extending at the hip). But when our hip flexors are tight our glutes become inhibited. How many runners have you heard say their glutes don’t fire? It’s not that runners are worse affected by this. It’s that the glutes are so important for runners (they’re our power house and they create stability at the hips to help prevent common causes of injury such as hips dropping down on one side or the knee collapsing in, among other things) and so we’re more aware of it when they don’t work.
So I suggest all my athletes do a few minutes of mobility work before a strength and conditioning or a run session (even better before all work outs, and if you know you have a issue with shoulder ROM then just a few mins before a swim could make all the difference). This warm up aims to build range of motion at key joints so that we get more out of our workout. Taking the case of the hip flexors as an example, greater hip mobility means:
You can get more extension which allows a greater stride length, important because stride length (how much ground you can cover) x cadence (steps per minute) = speed
By allowing the stride to open out at the back we reduce the risk of overstriding (where we try and create stride length by throwing our foot out too far in front of our body, which as well as slowing us down, is a big cause of injury, especially at the knees, in runners)
As well as loosening the joints to allow the potential for these positive changes in our gait, doing warm up exercises which mimic the position we’re aiming to achieve (e.g. exercises where we have to engage a neutral pelvis to feel the stretch at the front of the hip) helps us remind us what we’re trying to achieve on the run
Not only are we loosening things up for the work out that follows, but the more mobility work we do, the more we’re helping to redress the balance and change things over the long term (some people recommend 1 min of hip mobility work for every hour spent sitting)
We help our glutes to help us - glutes function best and get most leverage when we have a neutral pelvis but tight hip flexors can lead to an anterior pelvic tilt (imagine your pelvis as a bowl of water, when you have an anterior pelvic tilt you’re tipping water out the front)
If we progress from small movements to big, whole body movements (e.g. a lunge which works our hip flexors but also helps to engage our glutes) these help to warm up our bodies so we’re also achieving the goals of raising the heart rate and warming the muscles
How much to do:
I always start from the point of view that something is better than nothing. I could give you a perfect 30 min mobility warm up to do before each run, but after the enthusiasm of the first week, I can pretty much guarantee you wouldn’t do it. So instead I aim for 5-8 mins. If I’m feeling really tight, have been sitting down more than normal, or have a really important workout, I might do more. If I’m pressed for time, or been moving around a lot already that day I might do less.
In terms of reps, again it will depend on you. I usually say 5-8 slow rep / 30 secs of each exercise but if you’re tight (including on one side compared to the other) do a bit more, if it already feels loose do less. Never force it, we’re aiming to gently build range, not force anything.
What about stretching?
So we used to be told to stretch before exercise, then we were told not to, now we’re told to do mobility rather than flexibility – so what are we actually meant to do?
Well firstly, I can tell you what not to do. Are you someone who gets onto the treadmill/ to the start of a run, and absent-mindedly grabs their foot behind them towards their bum, holds it there for a micro-second before losing their balance and moves onto the next leg? There is zero point in that! For a stretch to do any good you have to hold it much longer. And ballistic stretching (bouncing up and down e.g. whilst you touch your toes) is not recommended, especially when you’re still cold.
Onto whether stretching is bad. Stretching refers to stretching the muscle (whereas flexibility is mobility at the joint. Often this will look the same e.g. pushing your knee forwards whilst keeping the heel down can help increase mobility at the ankle, and stretch your soleus, the calf muscle you can feel at the bottom of your leg, two different but closely related outcomes from the same exercise).
There’s some evidence that stretching before exercise can reduce top end performance, but most training runs are not about top end performance. And if my quads (thighs) are tight before I run and there’s more risk of my patella (knee cap) rubbing as I run, personally I’m happy to sacrifice the top few seconds off a run to reduce my risk of injury (which would have a far greater negative impact on my speed). Alternatively I might use the foam roller which will help to get the muscle fibres sliding better over each other, again freeing up my run, and for me personally, making the run feel a lot better. So if my quads are tight I’ll often add in a couch stretch (see video), or some foam rolling of my quads as part of my mobility.
So what should you do?
There’s lots of suggestions of mobility warm ups out there. Here's one that I use with my clients. Think about where you tend to feel tight or have restricted mobility and find the ones that work for you. Keep it simple and kit free and find ones that you can do outside if that’s where you’d rather warm up. In my experience this should probably include:
Hips, within this I like to focus on holding a neutral pelvis to then take into the run
Loosening tight muscles that affect running such as quads and adductors (inside of the thighs)
Something which starts to get the heart rate up and warm up the muscles
Lunges and side lunges are a big win here, done well they hit the hips, the ankles, get the glutes starting to work, and the heart rate up.
So next time you’re going out for a run or doing some gym work, rather than the few minutes of easy cardio, think about including a mobility warm up to maximise the gains from your run.
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