Dynamic versus Static Stretching Before a Run: Which Is Better?

By: Courtney Medlen, PT DPT

What is your pre-running ritual? Is it holding a quad stretch for 30 seconds, performing high knees and walking lunges, or just initiating the run with a light jog before accelerating full throttle? There are many debates over what is the best way to warm up before going for a run or participating in a sporting activity. However, when looking at the research and what is best for optimal muscle performance, the answer is simple: dynamic stretching pre-run.

While running, the body is required to go through a greater excursion of motion at the joints with an increased demand on the muscles for force production. Dynamic stretches prepare the body for this type of stress by taking the joint or muscle through a repetitive and challenging motion, while also warming up the muscle and preparing it for optimal activation.  Simultaneously, these movements activate the release of synovial fluid in the joints, especially in the lower extremity. Synovial fluid is like motor oil for the joints which protects the surfaces and cartilage that lines them from repetitive forces during running. These types of stretches are important because they also provide the joints and muscles with functional range of motion rather than flexibility, which helps to prevent injury during the run.  On the cellular level, dynamic stretches allow for increase in oxygen uptake at the muscles, lower lactate concentration, and raises blood pH, which all improve your body’s thermoregulation process and will enhance performance of the musculature. In simplistic terms, dynamic stretching will increase heart rate, body temperature, and blood flow so that your body feels warmed up sooner and more efficiently than with passive stretching

On the contrary, static stretches hold the muscle in a lengthened position, which essentially causes it to relax so you can move further into the range of motion you are trying to gain. This type of stretching will increase a muscle’s flexibility, but will conversely cause muscle inhibition and reduce the muscle’s ability to produce maximum force. If you stretch the muscle to its end range, you are decreasing its ability to recoil and therefore inhibiting its performance. This being said, if you static stretch and then immediately start your run, your muscles will not be capable of producing their max force and could result in compensatory motions from your body and potential injury.

Another reason for using dynamic stretching is the enhancement of neural activation. Muscles that are under active contraction (dynamic stretching) absorb more energy than those under relaxation (static stretching), which prepares the muscle to handle the loads imparted on the body during the run, instead of distributing them through tendons or ligaments and causing injury to these tissues.

So now the question is: what is a good way to perform a dynamic warm up? There have been studies that show a dynamic warm-up at submax levels (<60% VO2max) for 10-20 minutes in duration is sufficient in order to maximize muscle temperature without depleting its phosphate/energy stores. Also, it is important to keep in mind that a recovery period is necessary before blasting into the run. Typically, a 10-20 minute bout of dynamic warm up activities will require ~3-5 minutes of recovery so the phosphocreatine (energy) stores can be restored within the muscles. If your warm-up is too intense and not enough time for recovery is allotted, you could actually inhibit short-term performance by depleting your availability of high-energy phosphates in the muscle.

Below is a list of dynamic stretches that can be performed before your run. This is just a few of many dynamic stretches that can be performed. As with any warm-up, you need to perform it routinely and with proper dosing (intensity and duration) specific to the activity or length of run you will be participating in.

Dynamic Stretches:

  1. Leg Swings in all directions- forward, backward, side to side
  2. Walking Lunge
  3. Reverse Lunge or Diagonal Lunge with Arm Reach Overhead
  4. High Knees
  5. Butt Kicks
  6. Straight Leg Marching/Kicks
  7. Skipping
  8. Windmills
  9. Jumping Jacks
  10. Squat Jumps

*can be performed circuit style in order to target lower and upper extremity musculature instead of just performing 1 or 2 of the stretches!