Training Tip: Upgrade Your Warmup with Dynamic Stretching

My hamstrings have been awfully cranky lately. Am I sitting too much? Am I now officially decrepit? I’m familiar with the hamstring stiffness that comes from sitting at a desk all day, but usually it works itself out after 20 minutes or so of warmup jogging and I can do my workout with no issues. Lately, with the cold weather and wind, even a 40-minute super-easy warmup jog isn’t cutting it. My hamstrings bitch at me as I attempt to launch into 800m intervals on the track: their combined age is 82 years old, they’ll have me know, and they demand more respect!

Worried the discomfort could be a precursor to injury, I first tried to solve the problem by foam rolling and stretching more. There were definitely trigger points in my high hamstrings that responded to massage, but the soreness was still there when I ran. My lower back seemed stiff as well, so I stretched to loosen it up, but none of this helped much. Even my beloved Pilates wasn’t a miracle cure.

Should I find a physiotherapist? Schedule a massage? I didn’t want to spend the money if I could find a way to help myself — and I was convinced that self-help must be possible.

I wish I could claim I arrived at the solution in a flash of genius, or at least somewhat scientifically, but it was an Instagram post by Olympian Jen Rhines that changed everything. Jen posted a video of the warmup she does every day before her workouts. She calls it muscle activation, also known as dynamic stretching, or stretching on the move. I’d heard of dynamic stretching, but I never thought of it as particularly relevant to me. It seemed like an Elite Runner Thing.

Dynamic stretching is for everyone

I was wrong! It’s an All Runner Thing. Long story short, I did Jen’s routine and no longer hobbled at the beginning of my runs — my hamstrings felt much looser from the start. I tailored Jen’s routine, adding in some stretches and exercises to supplement her warmup. First, I substituted an active isolated hamstring stretch with a Theraband for Jen’s straight leg raises. I also added some mobility exercises — the Myrtl Routine from coach Jay Johnson — and made sure to foam roll the really painful stuff, like my IT bands. My hamstrings now mutter gently on occasion (especially if I’ve been sitting for a long time), but only as a formality. They’re basically fine.

There are many different ways to warm up with dynamic stretching. In fact, our own Dr. Garlic wrote a whole post about it! Each warmup serves the same purpose: getting you ready to run via gentle lengthening and increased blood flow to the muscles, while raising your heart rate. Other Salties swear by their pre-run warm-up exercises: Parsley incorporates drills into her runs; Angelica swears by the prerun lunge matrix. Since adding the 3-5 minute matrix to her routine, Angelica never gets that “dead leg” feeling at the beginning of her runs. I’ve started doing the lunge matrix, too, but find I need to warm up with gentler dynamic stretches first.

There’s still a place for static stretching in my routine: I do it after runs because it feels good and helps me identify where things might be a little sore or tight. But static stretching alone didn’t help my hamstring issue. It took the dynamic exercises to loosen my whole lower back and hip area (and the foam roller to loosen my IT bands) before my hamstrings decided to cooperate again.

There’s still a place for static stretching: post-run!

This is not just a story about my hamstrings though

This post is a lot of things — a PSA about dynamic stretching, for sure. But also, if we look at what my true issue was, it wasn’t just cranky hamstrings. My whole pre-workout routine was almost 30 years old. Warming up by jogging and then static stretching is what we did in high school. It was so 20th century! I would never walk around in the same clothes I wore back then, or wear the same makeup, so why was I doing the same old routine?

It’s worth shaking up your routine sometimes and thinking critically about what you do, even if it seems like an insignificant detail. But I think this story has yet another angle: my perception that dynamic stretching was an Elite Runner Thing and therefore couldn’t possibly be relevant to my needs. If I want to be a better runner, that kind of thinking is holding me back. It’s worth looking at what the very best runners do and thinking about how I can translate that to my midpack lifestyle. I may never run twice a day, run 150 miles a week, get sponsored by a shoe company, or spend an hour every day with a personal massage therapist, but warming up? That I can do.

How do you warm up for workous? Have you ever upgraded your routine?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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