Before the start of the Salt Lake City Marathon in April of 2013, it hit me how geeky we runners are. As I sat in a field doing glorified yoga exercises to make sure my hip flexors were loose and ready to go, I watched those around me, albeit impervious to how silly I looked myself. Let me describe the scene: first, there were three teenage boys fifty yards in front of me doing synchronized skipping exercises that included a loud stomp of the foot and required moving the upper-body in a way that mimics a chicken walking. Second, there was a slightly overweight man relaxing while performing Warrior 1 Pose. Third, a group of women were jogging a two plus mile warm-up before the marathon.
This scene not only made me chuckle, as I sat in a pigeon pose with one knee under my chest while lying on the ground, obviously fitting right into this circus-scene, but it made me question, what is the right warm-up routine for this marathon? From miles of jogging to chicken-skips, we all had a different idea.
Today, the long-running disagreement among professionals on what should and shouldn’t be done for warm-up has been as fervent as ever.2 However, one thing is certain– static stretching, which essentially means holding a stretch for a set period of time, how most of us were taught in gym class, has been proven time and time again to adversely affect the preparation for power based sports activities. Since this discovery, it has been deemed that dynamic stretching is the way to go. A recent investigation from North Dakota State University studied the effects of various stretching and warm-up techniques on vertical jump performance.7 The study concluded that it doesn’t matter what kind of dynamic stretching activity used, whether using jogging, skipping, or a series of fluid warm-up movements, they all worked in preparing neuromuscular function.
It is important to note that many studies have looked at warm-up components in isolation, but a more useable study would be one that takes into account a more realistic warm-up session, which would include dynamic movements (lunge with a stretch, knee-to-chest while walking forward, etc) followed by static stretching.
In one study, Australian researchers looked at a three-way warm up, which followed the sequence of dynamic stretch, static stretch, dynamic stretch. Participants all finished a five minute warm-up, followed by a vertical jump, and then separated into static stretching, dynamic stretching, or control, followed by a second vertical jump. Every participant then finished with a series of movements with a final vertical jump recorded after 60 minutes of activity. The results included a 10.7% better vertical jump score with the dynamic stretch vs static stretch group.1 After the second period of activity, the dynamic stretch group increased vertical jump again while the static stretch group did not record any differences. Here comes the big BUT! But, the control group was required to do jogging, high steps, skipping, and zigzag running instead of particular static or dynamic stretches, and this group outperformed both the static stretching and the dynamic stretching group. The conclusion, supported by another study based in Louisiana, is that all we really need for warm up is some basic running-style movements.2
Next, a team from Ohio tried to determine how much static stretching would result in a decreased performance. They concluded that two sets of 15 seconds stretch / 15 seconds relax, did not result in a performance decrement, but that six sets of 15 seconds stretch / 15 seconds relax (90 seconds total stretching), undoubtedly did result in decreased performance.5
At this point, you may have noticed that a lot of studies discuss how passive, static stretching adversely affects power-based activities like vertical jumping as compared to dynamic stretching. But does this translate to our endurance sports? Although some recent studies3 have discussed little to no difference in static stretching versus dynamic stretching when it comes to endurance activities, it is important to remember that running is still a plyometric and ballistic activity that requires strength and power, albeit on a sub-maximal level and over long periods of time. Thus, I would argue that it may be more challenging to measure exactly how much dynamic stretching is better than static stretching when it comes to endurance running. However, and this is still my opinion, because of the ballistic and plyometric nature of running, the benefits highlighted in the aforementioned vertical jump and max strength studies would still apply to endurance running.
What is the take-away from all of this?
- Keep the goal of the warm-up clear; it is to help you improve performance and reduce the risk of injury during performance. It is not the time to develop flexibility. Learning from the Ohio study, perform two sets of 15 seconds stretch / 15 seconds relax per muscle group, no more.
- If you are performing a maximal strength or power activity, don’t let stretching be the last activity you do during warm up. Your muscles need to be activated for performance, so either skip static stretching all together or do it before dynamic running movements in the warm-up so your body is primed for power.
- Static stretching is not evil personified, but timing is key. Save static stretching for post-activity or while at home watching TV; keep it separated from your pre-performance routine.
- Finally, this article is not your warm up Bible. Before the event, a healthy, performance-oriented mindset is the most important part of an athlete’s preparation. If that means completing a long-held warm-up routine that includes static stretching, so be it if it helps the athlete to visualize their success, and be calm and focused.
In conclusion, think of the warm-up as a gray area, not black and white. There isn’t a right or wrong way to warm up, as the research is simply too varied and contradictory to completely rule out static stretching or dynamic stretching all together. What is widely agreed-upon, and obvious, is that the athlete needs to be prepared for the event. Every athlete is different, and with experience comes a certain “right” way for the athlete to be prepared for their specific event. Encourage your athletes to find that “right” way for themselves as they mature with each competition, while offering warm-up options that are specific to the event. With a 5k or 10k race, for example, I encourage my athletes to arrive early, jog for 10-20 minutes, follow jogging with strides, a few dynamic stretching movements, then a few more strides before the gun goes off. I am purposely prescribing ranges of activities rather than specifics for their warm-up.
Thus, perhaps neither my pigeon-stretch, the man’s yoga performance, nor the high-schoolers’ absurd-looking skips were completely right or completely wrong. We were each doing what prepared our own self for that morning’s marathon.