Elite Core and Dynamic Warm-Ups: A Comprehensive Guide

by Jason Fitzgerald

There’s no doubt that distance runners need to strengthen their core and properly warm-up for a run.

But the days of crunches and pre-run static stretching are over.  High school kids, Division I runners, and professional athletes are all spending more time getting ready to run with dynamic warm-ups and core exercises.

I used to skip the gym because I just didn’t like to lift.  I still don’t really enjoy it so my gym workouts are short, to the

Dynamic Warm-ups and Core Exercisespoint, and only once per week.  These days, I spend a lot of time doing dynamic stretches, range of motion exercises, and running specific core routines.

I consider them absolutely essential to my training.  They don’t necessarily make me faster, but they allow me to train at a high level.  By getting me ready to run, they help me avoid injury and stay consistent with putting in mileage and workouts.

Most core and dynamic exercises serve multiple functions as well.  They not only strengthen your body, but they increase your heart rate, range of motion, and prepare you for running.  The flip side of this coin is that doing them after a run serves as a great warm-down.

Dynamic Warm-ups and Warm-Downs

I have several routines that I do before my runs that you may have seen in past training logs.  By increasing strength and flexibility without being too challenging, these workouts are incredibly versatile and can be done before or after your run.  Many of these exercises also make you more efficient by improving your running form.

The majority of these workouts were lifted from Jay Johnson, an ex-Colorado runner who now coaches several elites in Boulder.  His Myrtl Routine focuses on the hip region and is great for anybody with tight hip flexors, groin, or glutes.  The Lunge Matrix is something that I incorporate before most runs and prepares the body very well for running.

I consider his Cannonball Routine comprehensive and I usually only do it before harder workouts or long runs.  It incorporates 15 exercises and can take nearly 15 minutes to complete if you are not familiar with the order of exercises.  Nevertheless, you will feel warm, loose, and ready to run after completing it.  Lately I have been adding in an abbreviated version of the Lunge Matrix after this routine.

Johnson has two additional routines, the Pedestal and Back Routine that I don’t do very often.  I think they are fairly introductory, but please take a look.  If it works for you, please use it.

I created a short warm-up to do before my easy runs that I simply call my “Standard Warm-Up.”  I will do this 3-4 times per week and sometimes as a quick warm-down if I am not doing more challenging strength work.  Most of these exercises are in Jay Johnson’s routines so I won’t detail them out.  This usually takes me about 8 minutes and it consists of:

  1. Walking Deadlifts (Drinking Bird) – 10 reps.  Take a step forward with your left leg, bend down while keeping your left leg fairly straight and touch your left toes with both hands.  Keep your left leg slightly bent and your right leg parallel to the floor. Your right leg and your torso will be parallel to the floor.  Repeat on your other leg.
  2. Groiners – 20 reps.
  3. Donkey Kicks – 10 reps.
  4. Mountain Climbers – 20 reps with legs in, 20 reps with legs out.
  5. Leg Swings - 10 reps.
  6. Lateral Leg Swings – 10 reps.
  7. Iron Cross – 10 reps.
  8. Lunge Matrix - abbreviated version, 4 reps per lunge type.

Functional Core for Runners

Core exercises will improve your form and efficiency while staving off fatigue at the end of a race.  Crunches might have been the “core” of your Dad’s track team, but these days the workouts are more functional and effective.  Since the end of my college days I have been doing a simple six exercise core circuit that is absolutely incredible.  I know that we got the routine online but I just can’t find it now.  If somebody knows, please let me know!  I call it my “standard core” routine.

This circuit is fairly comprehensive and targets your obliques, upper and lower abdominals, lower back, hamstrings, and glutes.  I go through the exercise for one minute and immediately transition to the next.  I like to do 2-3 sets and take about two minutes of rest between each.  In order, the circuit is:

  1. Modified Bicycle: lie on your back and hold one leg up in the air.  Your thigh should be perpendicular to your body and your shin parallel to the ground.  Hold your other leg 2-3 inches off the ground.  Hold for several seconds and switch legs.  Make sure your lower back is in a neutral position during the entire exercise.
  2. Plank: lie on your stomach and prop your weight on your forearms and toes.  Keep your back straight and hold this position for the entire exercise.
  3. Leg Extension: lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground.  Lift your hips so there is a straight line from your shoulders to your knees.  Extend one leg straight out, hold for several seconds, then put it back down on the ground and repeat.  Make sure your hips don’t dip or your butt sags.
  4. Side Plank: on your side, lift your body so your weight is on one forearms and the side of one foot.  There should be a straight diagonal line from your head to your feet.  I usually do 10 lateral leg raises during this exercise but that’s advanced.
  5. Modified Bird Dog: in a table position, lift your left arm so it’s parallel to the ground.  At the same time, lift your opposite leg (your right) so your thigh is parallel to the ground and your shin is perpendicular.  Your knee should be bent at 90 degrees and your glute muscle activated.  Hold for several seconds and switch sides.
  6. Supine Leg Lift: lie on your back with your weight on your elbows and heels, lift your hips and keep a straight line from your toes to your shoulders.  Lift one leg about 8 inches off the ground, hold for several seconds, and repeat with the opposite leg.

This core routine is general and covers every muscle from your upper abdominals to your hamstrings.  If you were to pick one core or strength circuit to do in your training program, this standard core routine is your choice.

As some may know, my last injury was a major IT Band problem after the New York Marathon.  After seeing several physical therapists and countless hours online researching the best treatment programs, I developed my ITB Rehab Routine which strengthens the glutes, hips, and quadriceps.

This routine is more focused in nature but I still do it because I think hip strength is very important in runners.  New research is coming out that weak hips are to blame for lower leg injuries.  The ITB Rehab Routine consists of seven exercises done in a row with minimal rest.  I don’t do more than one set. A video demonstration can be seen here and you’ll need a Thera Band to do some of the exercises.

  1. Lateral Leg Raises: lie on your right side with a theraband around your ankles.  Lift your left leg to about 45 degrees in a controlled manner, then lower.  I do 30 reps per side.
  2. Clam Shells: lie on your right side with your knees together and a theraband around your lower thighs.  Your thighs should be about 45 degrees from your body and your knees bent at 90 degrees.  Open your legs like a clam shell but don’t move your pelvis – the motion should not rock your torso or pelvic girdle.  Keep it slow and controlled.  I do 30 reps on each leg.
  3. Hip Thrusts: lie on your back with your weight on your upper back your feet.  Your legs will be bent at the knee.  Lift one leg so your weight is all on one leg and your back.  Lower your butt almost to the ground and thrust upward by activating your glutes.  This exercise is great for glute strength and hip stability.  I do 25 reps on each leg.  Josh Cox demonstrates this exercise in this video (right after pushups).
  4. Side-Steps: with a theraband around your ankles and knees slightly bent, take ten steps laterally.  The band should be tight enough so it provides constant resistance during all steps.  Still facing the same direction, take another 10 steps in the opposite direction.  That is one set.  I like to do 5 sets.  This exercise will look like a slow-motion version of a basketball “defense” drill.
  5. Pistol Squats: These are simply one-legged squats.  The key to a successful pistol squat is to not lean forward, keep the motion slow and controlled, and make sure your knee does not collapse inward.
  6. Hip Hikes: Stand on your right foot.  With your pelvis in a neutral position, drop the left side so it is several inches below the right side of your pelvic bone.  Activate your right hip muscle and lift your left side back to its neutral position.  I do 20 reps per side.
  7. Iron Cross: this exercise is in Jay Johnson’s Cannonball video

Both the Standard Core and ITB Rehab Routine are more strength oriented and I save them for after runs. If you get sore at all after any of these routines, make sure to use your foam roller to work out any kinks.

For 7 more strength and flexibility routines that are specific to the needs of runners, see the Injury Prevention for Runners program.

Let’s put this all together in a training program.  Once you have done the dynamic warm-up routines several times and are comfortable with them, you can do them before your runs.  If you run five days per week, my suggestion is to warm-up with the Standard Warm-up twice, Cannonball twice, and the full Lunge Matrix once.

After you run, perform the Standard Core Routine twice, ITB Rehab Routine once, Myrtl Routine once, and then alternate between the Pedestal and Back routines.  You will increase strength, flexibility, and feel much better during your runs.  Instead of sitting on the couch after a workout, doing a core or strength routine helps you recover by keeping your heart rate up without any impact.

I recently read that elite runners spend twice the amount of time on strength, flexibility, and drills than they do on actually running. Start doing more of this type of general strength work and you will absolutely become a better runner.

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