This post is in partnership with West Town Physical Therapy. As always, we only write about experiences and companies we love.
Getting the itch to run outdoors as spring approaches? You’re not alone—but as tempting as it might be to throw on your running shoes and bound out the door, Erin Conroy of West Town Physical Therapy wants you to take just a few minutes for a running warm-up.
Through her work as a physical therapist, she sees a LOT of running injuries, the most common of which is knee pain.
“Knee pain is more common in females, and you’ll feel it right in front of knee or on the outside of the knee where their IT band attaches. It’s not usually a traumatic injury, just wear and tear over time,” she explains.
What causes knee pain from running?
According to Conroy, knee pain can come from a few different things.
“Most of the time,” she points out, “knee pain comes from a lack of muscular strength and control.”
As she goes on to explain, running requires three things from your body: control, strength, and flexibility.
“You might develop knee pain from an issue above or below the knee. You might have difficulty activating your glutes and hip muscles to control your pelvic position while running. The pain could also come from the bottom up — that is, from the foot, if you don’t have enough ankle stability, or your shoes are worn out, or your foot overpronates.”
Her goal as a physical therapist? Get runners back in tune with their muscles, so they learn how to activate their muscles more efficiently and prime their bodies for an upcoming running workout. Here’s how she recommends you warm up for a run: with neuromuscular activation, dynamic stretching, and a little pre-run cardio.
First: Neuromuscular activation
Conroy tells her patients that “it’s really important to get that brain-muscle connection, because that gets the body ready to go.”
Specifically, she wants you to start waking up the muscles you’ll engage during your run: your core, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calfs. She recommends starting with the core, because it’s the anchor for your extremities.
Start with a high plank, shoulders stacked over your wrists and back flat, with your hips tucked under to take out any arch or sag in the low back.
Do about 20 slow and controlled mountain climbers, bringing one knee in towards your chest at a time before extending it back to its starting position.
“That mimics the motion of you leg movement while activating the core,” shares Conroy.
Next, activate the gluteus medius, which Conroy says is responsible for controlling the pelvic motion when running. Find a wall and stand sideways against it. Push your inner knee into the wall, and think about pulling that outer standing leg away from the wall.
You should feel this in two places: the hip of the standing outer leg, and the knee of the inner leg pushing into the wall. Hold for 15-30 seconds to activate your muscles and build endurance.
No wall around? No problem. Instead, stand on one leg, keeping the standing knee soft. Drop your hips slightly and pull them back to a neutral position. Repeat for 15-30 seconds.
After that, you’ll move on to a combination of a reverse lunge and a single leg balance. Start in a standing position, then reach your left leg back, lowering into a reverse lunge and tapping your toe back.
Pull that extended left leg all the way back up and bring it into your chest, maintaining your balance on that standing right leg. Repeat 10 times, then switch legs.
Finally, finish up by warming up the calves with squats to heel raises.
With your weight in your heels, drop your butt until your thighs are parallel to the ground; your chest stays up and your back stays flat. Drive your your heels and activate your glutes as you come back through standing, then finish by balancing on your toes with your heels raised up as if you’re wearing a pair of high heels. Repeat 20 times.
Next: Dynamic stretching
“The reason for dynamic stretching,” Conroy points out, “is because with running, you really need that elastic recoil where your muscles shorten then lengthen in a repeating cycle. Save the static stretches for the end of your run!”
Start with walking straight leg kicks, kicking one leg up to touch your toe to the opposite hand, keeping your legs as straight as possible to stretch the hamstrings.
Alternate which leg you kick and walk for about 15 feet (or in place, if you’re short on space). This, according to Conroy, also works your core and your balance.
Next, either walking or in place, take on a standing quad stretch. Balancing on your right leg, use your left hand to grab your left ankle behind you.
Once you’re steady, reach up and over with your right hand to stretch your side body as well. Conroy’s advice here: “Don’t arch your low back and pull your ankle too much. Instead, think about contracting your abs and pulling your hips forward to get your hip flexor involved.” Hold on each side for 15-30 seconds.
Finally, complete about 15 feet of walking lunges with a trunk rotation. Step forward with your left foot, bending your legs until both knees are at a 90* angle and your back knee is hovering a couple inches above the ground.
In this lowered position, slowly twist your torso towards that front left knee, until you’re facing the wall to the left of you. Come back through center and drive through the front left heel to come back to standing, then repeat on the opposite side. Make sure your motion is controlled when lowering AND when pushing back up, advises Conroy.
I know, I know. “I have to do cardio BEFORE I go for a run?!” Yep, that’s exactly what you should be doing — and here’s why. Your body needs that “springiness,” or what the experts call “reactive strength,” to perform well on a run. Springiness goes a long way towards helping your muscles work efficiently during your run, meaning you conserve energy while still maintaining a strong pace.
Luckily, this cardio warm-up will only take a minute or two, so it’s unlikely to wear you out before your run.
Start with high knees, driving your knees into your chest one at a time and landing quietly and softly to emphasize that springy motion.
Next, move into butt kicks: alternating kicking each heel back towards your butt, with your knees directly under your hips and your low back flat (resist the urge to stick your butt out).
Finally, finish with a few jump squats and split lunge jumps to isolate the legs and work on balance and control. After all, when you think about it, you only run on one leg at a time.
When you’re ready to start the run, Conroy wants you to do one thing: take it easy during the opening minutes.
“Start slow, and ease into your warm-up AND your run,” she urges. “You’re still priming your core and hip muscles,” so wait to push the pace until your body is full warmed up and firing on all cylinders.
Post-run: Static stretching
Once your run victory is complete, don’t just come inside and plop on the couch (as tempting as that may be). Instead, let that heart rate come down and muscles cool off with a little bit of walking and some longer static stretches.
“A kneeling hip flexor stretch or standing hip flexor stretch will be great, especially if you’re coming in from the cold,” says Conroy. “Hitting all those muscles we warmed up in the beginning — the hamstrings, the quads, the calves — with static versions of those earlier dynamic stretches is a really good idea.”
For example, take the walking straight leg kicks you started with: change it to a static stretch with a simple standing hamstring stretch, one leg at a time.
Aim for a 30 second hold for each static stretch.
Here’s your running warm-up in a nutshell:
- High plank with slow mountain climbers, 10-20 reps
- Standing gluteus medius activation, 15-30 seconds per side
- Reverse lunge to single leg balance, 10 reps per side
- Squat to heel raise, 10-20 reps
- Walking straight leg kicks, 15 feet (or 10 reps per side)
- Standing quad stretch, 15-30 seconds per side
- Walking lunge with trunk rotation, 15 feet (or 10 reps per side)
- High knees: 10-15 seconds
- Butt kicks: 10-15 seconds
- Squat jumps: 10-15 seconds
- Split lunge jumps: 10-15 seconds per side
Interested in visiting West Town Physical Therapy for an evaluation? Call them at 773-729-2551 or book online here! You can also visit West Town Physical Fitness (@westtownpt) and Erin herself (@thephytchick) on Instagram for helpful tips, as well as more physical therapy and fitness movements to try.