The Dynamic Running Warm-up, Part 1: Muscle Activation

BY Adam Hodges

30% of the injuries treated in sports medicine clinics are muscular injuries. But warding off these injuries is as simple as including a proper warm-up. Here's a great routine for runners and triathletes.

Except for the rare athlete who has never suffered an injury, most multisport athletes are all too familiar with the pain associated with injuries to skeletal muscles. In fact, over 30% of the injuries treated in sports medicine clinics are muscular injuries. Yet warding off such injuries can be as simple as including a proper warm-up into your training routine.

As widely recognized among coaches, athletes, and organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine, a proper warm-up affords the athlete many benefits prior to bouts of intense exercise. These benefits are summarized in a 2007 review article in the journal Sports Medicine, which underscores the importance of the warm-up for injury prevention. Through raising the temperature of working muscles and increasing the diameter of blood vessels (vasodilation), the warmup increases blood flow through the body. More oxygen is sent to working muscles in the service of energy production. The speed and force of muscle contractions increases, as does the speed of nerve transmissions. Flexibility is enhanced, and a protective mechanism is put in place whereby muscles require a greater force and length of stretch to produce a tear or strain. Think of the classic analogy of a rubber band. A warm rubber band stretches further and faster than a cold one, which is more liable to snap apart.

So given the importance of warming up for injury prevention, what does a proper warm-up look like? In this two-article series, I demonstrate a warm-up tailored for running.

As noted in the 2007 Sports Medicine article above, the warm-up should take place within the 15 minutes that precede the main activity, and it should be tailored to the needs of that activity and the athlete. A full dynamic warmup will include three parts: (1) neuromuscular activation, (2) dynamic stretching, and (3) the cardiovascular component (in this case, running). Most people are quite familiar with Stage 3 already – running for about 10 to 20 minutes at an easy pace before beginning their workout. For that reason, we will cover the lesser known aspects of the dynamic warm-up: Part 1 of this series will discuss Neuromuscular Activation, and Part 2 will discuss Dynamic Stretching.

Neuromuscular Activation

The routine I describe below along with the accompanying videos will demonstrate some basic muscle activation exercises for a runner. Doing these simple muscular recruitment exercises will help to “wake up” the communication lines between the nervous system and the muscular system to ready the body for activity.

Each exercise should be done at no more than 20 percent effort—just enough to facilitate activation of the muscle group. Hold each exercise for 6 to 10 seconds; and do each one 2 to 3 times. The entire muscle activation sequence need only take 3 to 5 minutes at the very beginning of your workout. You can find a video demonstration of the entire sequence at the end of this article.

Core Snap and Backward Lean

First, start off by engaging the deep abdominals in your core. Imagine that your belly button is the front part of a metal snap that you might find on a jacket, and the back of that snap is located on your spine. Envision snapping that button closed.

To further facilitate deep abdominal activation, lean back on one leg and hold it for 6 to 10 seconds. Then switch to the other leg. Complete 2 to 3 repetitions on each leg.

Quadriceps Activation

To activate the quadriceps, balance on one leg while straightening the opposite one. Remember, the effort should be just enough to activate the muscle. Hold for 6 to 10 seconds; and switch to the other leg. Complete 2 to 3 repetitions on each leg.

Medial Glutes Activation

To activate the gluteus medius (medial hip muscles), balance on one leg while extending the other leg diagonally and to the side. Hold for 6 to 10 seconds; and switch to the other leg. Complete 2 to 3 repetitions on each leg.

Hip Flexors, Hamstrings, Glutes Activation

The last activation exercise consists of standing on one leg while bringing the opposite leg up so that the thigh is parallel to the ground. Hold this position for 6 to 10 seconds. Then, drive that leg back so that it is behind your body with the calf now parallel to the ground. Hold this for 6 to 10 seconds; then switch to the other leg. Complete 2 to 3 repetitions for each leg.

Progression toward Balance Drills

Once you have mastered these basic muscle activation exercises, you can gradually add an additional component to work on balance. Simply do each of the exercises just demonstrated using a balance disk. This will further enhance recruitment of core muscles.

Once you’ve completed the neuromuscular part of the warm up, you are ready to proceed into the dynamic stretching exercises to be detailed in the next article in this series.

Here’s a video demo of full routine described above:

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About Adam Hodges

Adam Hodges, Ph.D., is a USA Triathlon certified coach and American College of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer. In addition to coaching multisport athletes, he has coached high school cross country and track runners in California and masters swimmers in Colorado. As a USAT All-American triathlete, he has competed in the ITU World Triathlon Championships, the ITU World Duathlon Championships, and the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. As a masters runner, he has won a series title in the XTERRA SoCal Trail Series. Learn more about his books and training resources at

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