Go to any race, and you’ll notice that most runners are contorted into various positions, statically stretching their muscles. Must be good right? If everyone is doing it, then you should probably be doing it.
Not so fast.
“When it comes to running, flexibility is overrated,” says Steve Magness, the well-known cross-country coach at the University of Houston. “Research shows that if you are too flexible, you are a less efficient runner.”
What Magness is referring to is the “lever” action that runners’ joints and muscles perform while running. Think of it this way. Your muscles and tendons are designed like springs, and when your feet hit the ground, those springs release the stored energy. Floppy, flexible springs won’t perform that task as well. A 2010 study showed that, “the less flexible distance runners tended to be more economical, possibly as a result of the energy-efficient function of the elastic components in the muscles and tendons during the stretch-shortening cycle.”
Range of motion is the ability of joints and muscles to move well in a given direction. According to Magness, “Runners benefit from good hip extension because this is the origin of most of a runner’s power, allowing them to push into and off the ground.”
The truth is, runners don’t need flexibility the way gymnasts or ballet dancers do. So, what then is the right way to warm up?
There are several components to a good warm up. Experts now believe that strength and range of motion (not to be confused with flexibility) are what runners need. So instead of stretching, you should be doing a dynamic warm-up for about 10 minutes just before running to prime the body to go through the required range of motion. A dynamic warm-up should include exercises like lunges, high-knee skips, squats, butt-kicks and sideways leg swings. These exercises, focusing on range of motion, mimic running, and therefore help prepare your body for a run—or race.
Follow your dynamic warm-up with an easy 10-minute run with some pick-ups thrown in. The pick-ups will help engage your fast-twitch muscle fibers so they’re ready when you hit race pace. This prepares the body for the race start by sending blood to the muscles and generally loosening you up. It’s called a warm-up for a reason, because it actually makes your muscles warm. The key is to ease into it. When you increase your heart rate gradually, you’ll feel better at the starting gun.
Upcoming Races: Saturday, November 10 at 8:00 a.m., the New Braunfels Half Marathon at the Stars and Stripes Drive-In Theatre on 1178 Kroesche Ln. in New Braunfels. Sunday, November 11 at 8:25 a.m. the Cedar Park 5 Miler at Twin Lakes Family YMCA 204 E Elm Trail, in Cedar Park.