Elite Core and Dynamic Warm-Ups: A Comprehensive Guide

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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  1. Oooo, pistol squats! I love to hate those suckers. I have a hard enough time doing those freestanding, much less with a kettlebell in hand like some of the CrossFit workouts suggest.

    • Tell me about it…when I’m feeling frisky I hold a 10-15 lb. weight. But definitely not a big kettlebell!

  2. Hi, great post, just what I need. I have ITB problems in my right leg,which is probably due to having weak hips. I love running and I run consistently but never liked doing the after-run strengthening. But they are essential in recovery process and just gotta do them.
    great post, will help me out big time.

    • Thanks Maja. It’s true, these types of exercises are so valuable and what help keep me healthy. Just 10-15 minutes a day is all you need for injury prevention; these workouts work wonders.

      • I just stumbled across your site and can see it benefiting me in other types of exercise. I was wondering if increasing my hip strength and flexibility will get reduce my ITB problems. I haven’t had an ITB injury but do know when it gets really tight, it can effect my knees.

        Thank you for providing all of this information, I can’t wait till I go through the rest of your site.

        • Gaining more hip strength and flexibility sure can’t hurt! Be sure to check out the ITB Rehab Routine for that. Thanks for the kind words and enjoy all the articles 🙂

  3. Great and thanks. I have been suffering from ITB this year very bad. Nothing seems to work. PT, Massage with active release, Prednisone. I will be doing this exercises as a daily regimine.

    • Carl, sorry to hear about your ITBS. It’s one of the worst injuries to have! I’ve found that strength work really helps so if you consistently improve your strength in the quad, hamstring, glute, hip area, then you’ll see success. Good luck!

  4. Where can i find pictures or videos of these exercises?

    • I linked to many videos for Jay Johnson’s routine’s – the Myrtl, Back, Cannonball, Pedestal, and Lunge Matrix all have videos. The other three routines (standard warm-up, standard core, and ITB Rehab Routine) unfortunately don’t so I tried to explain them as best as I could. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to put together some videos myself.

  5. Fitz the only video link i found in this topic was the one from Josh Cox from runnersworld. The others? 🙁

  6. Fitz, I coach a high school cross country team. We incorporated almost the exact core exercises and dynamic stretching this season. Before we ever did any speed work, my kids were racing much faster than ever before. I believe the main reason is the core work. So much so that I have started doing it too.

  7. Fitz,

    All great points and a great post! Though I have to say that I’m a big fan of Jay Johnson’s Pedestal routine. You’re right, in their most basic form they are a introductory, but I think they are a great tool for more advanced core training if you increase the time and do the leg lifting modifications. I encourage all the runners on my team to incorporate them into every cooldown.

    • You’re right, you can increase their difficulty by increasing duration, leg lifting, and going down on your elbows as opposed to on your hands. That’s why I love core workouts – you can essentially do a new, challenging workout every day!

  8. Canadian says:

    I gave the standard core & ITB Rehab a try tonight, and man do I feel depressed. I had such a hard time and feel like a total weakling. (I have only been running for 1 year and don’t do any strength or core stuff — I really only like aerobic exercise, but I want to avoid injury.) I don’t really understand leg extension and supine leg lift. When you say lift your hips, do you mean get your ass off the floor? If so, that seems pretty much impossible to me for supine leg lift. Only my elbows and heels are touching the floor? That’s nearly impossible on its own, but when I lift a leg I collapse. Maybe I am not understanding this right. Or maybe I should start off by modifying in some way, but if so how? Most of these I cannot do anywhere near the repetitions you suggest, but I guess I just work up to it.

    As for ITB rehab, I cannot seem to do pistol squats either. I don’t understand what/how I could hold on to something. And I can’t get anywhere near parallel to the floor, is that ok for now? And in the hip hikes, what does it mean to have the pelvis in a neutral position. I am afraid I am a total dummy — never been into formal exercise.

    You say to do these after running, but does it have to be? I run early in the morning before work and I’d rather not get up any earlier. Could I do this stuff later in the day instead?

    Thanks for any advice you can provide, and sorry for being so dense.

    • Here’s a photo demo of the standard core routine: http://www.smiweb.org/core.pdf. I also hope to do a video demonstration within the next month or so. Pistol squats are tough! No worries if you can’t go down all the way yet, you can hold on to something for stability at first. You can definitely do these later at night if you’re rushed in the morning – I do that a lot myself. It’s good to do at least a few minutes of leg swings or other flexibility exercises just to loosen up a little. The strength work can wait. Thanks for commenting!

      • Thanks for the response! The photos really help. I can see that I was not doing one or two of the exercises correctly.

        I’m glad the exercises don’t need to be right after running. It will be so much more convenient for me to do them later. I guess your point was just that they should not be done *before* running.

        The leg swings were also challenging, but that is because I live in a small apartment! I guess I will need to move the couch first.

        I think your website is going to be really helpful to me, as I try to become a stronger runner and hopefully train for my first half without getting injured.

  9. Hey there I hate to sound like an idiot but can you elaborate on the form on a walking deadlift? Is it essentially just like a lunge (back bottom half of leg parallel to ground?)

  10. I am doing the lunge matrix warmup http://www.coachjayjohnson.com/2010/04/lunge-matrix-as-warm-up/ and lateral leg swing, and when doing the second i have pain at the hip and a bit lower. The pain is more noticable after running also in front of the hip. I think i will start doing stretching again.

  11. I have a few technical questions regarding these routines and training. When you say a good training routine is ” 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…” does that mean that each time you run you should warm up with 2x standard warm up, 2x cannonball, and the full lunge matrix? or one routine per run?

    Also, in the standard warm up in the lunge matrix, do you do 4 total lunges of each type, 2 per leg, or 4 on each leg?

    I have been doing these and they are great!! My legs feel so much stronger when I am running. Thank you so much for this great advice!

    • Hi Rebecca – I mean that before a run, you pick one routine and do it once. 5 routines before a run would be a little excessive 🙂 When I do the Standard warm-up and include the lunge matrix, I do 40 total lunges: 8 per lunge type, which is 4 per leg. And definitely start with less if you’re just starting so you get used to them. I hope that helps!

  12. Jason,

    I tweeted two nights ago about completing your core workout for the first time. Tonight I feel like a train wreck. Holy crap! There must be something to this. It tortured some long forgotten muscles. Question: I have my first 50 miler next February (3 marathons in the last 14 months and 2 50k races since June) and know I need to focus, among other things, on my core. My training schedule currently has the core workout twice a week. That will give me 20 sessions. Is this enough to see results or do I need to ramp it up. Cheers and thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience.

    • Hey James, I think core work is all about injury prevention. So it’s more important for those runners who have a history of injuries. If that’s not you, I’d still include it for general strength, but it doesn’t have to b ea top priority. Hope that makes sense.

  13. I am an experienced trainer, coach, and post rehabilitation specialists and have to say that your exercise selections are spot on with what I use with clients. They work, I have seen them work first hand. Great post!!

  14. Not sure if you are still going to be following this Jason, but what is your advice on workout selection for someone who runs 7 days a week (though admittedly not hard days for most of them)? My current thought is to expand the Lunge Matrix to 3 days a week for the warm-ups and throw in a day each of the Pedestal and Back routines and an extra day of the Standard Core. Working on building a nice long running streak to be able to brag about to my friends and want to make sure I stay healthy and strong on the way there.

    • Hey Robert – it doesn’t have to be scheduled (I don’t do this), so do either the Standard warm-up, lunge matrix, or Cannonball/Myrtl before a run. After you run do Cannonball, ITB Rehab, Standard Core, or Myrtl. Try to vary the stresses a little bit, but you can do the lunge matrix every day. It’s great for you.

      • Been loving the lunge matrix, though neglect of lunges in my routines to date has left me with some balance issues when I do them currently. I’m honestly a very plan oriented kind of guy so I like to have a guideline of numbers to work on but I’ll go by feel and time, if I just don’t have the time or the energy for a given routine some day I’ll cut it a little shorter if I don’t have any complaints that need addressing. Currently the only one of those I’ve got is some soreness in my right ankle that I’m pretty sure I picked up during some time when I was neglecting the treatment of an ingrown toenail for far to long. That’s thankfully been subsiding as I put some effort into improving my running.

  15. Jason, thank you for putting all of this together in one spot, in a logical order! I have been limping through a long recovery from traumatic trochanteric bursitis and ITB syndrome…all caused by a fall where I landed hard on my left hip, leaving me with that mouthful of technical injury terms that are all a real pain in the butt and hip. My doctor recommended some exercises and stretches and areas to work on strengthening after an initial rest period, but what I needed desperately was structured workouts. Ad hoc exercises when I am sidelined by an injury make me CRAZY. I got up this morning determined to create a rehab workout schedule, and was floundering around Runners World, getting more and more frustrated. And then I remembered YOUR blog. I should have come here first. I love your blog!

  16. Thanks for all this excellent info. After some annoying and frustrating injuries this spring – I am finally convinced I need to incorporate strength training and make it a priority. I’m starting tomorrow morning – I have a whole workout planned trying a bunch of these exercises out (while of course keeping an eye on my injured adductor/pelvis). Also excited to start incorporating your suggested “standard warm-up” daily. Looking forward to entering the next training cycle stronger.
    Also – thanks for sharing the article suggesting weak hips are to blame for lower leg injuries. You may remember I have suffered from PF in the past – and am hoping strengthening my hips will help that as well. Thanks!

  17. My hip flexor annoyance is creeping up again, so I think I need to start incorporating these workouts into my routine again. I did them probably 3 times a week a few months ago and for some unknown reason stopped. I could tell a difference in my core and balance definitely. Your blog is so helpful, I read it all of the time! Thanks for the loads of good information!

  18. I struggle with side planks with the leg lifts. I can hardly raise that outer leg. I also cannot lift my legs up when doing the supine leg lift. What does this mean? What am I lacking strength in?

  19. DamonBriggs says:

    Will doing Pedestal, Mytrtl, and back routine help me become faster distance and also help me to stay in the race longer with getting fatigue?

  20. Ryan Hadley says:

    I’d recommend two stability exercises using a theraband that I picked up in PT: Clocks and Steamboats.

    Clocks: for this one you put a theraband loop around your knees like you’re doing the sidesteps. You balance on one leg and get into position like you’re going to start a pistol squat but instead you reach forward with your free leg (about as far as if you were going to do a lunge) and touch the ground without putting any weight on your free leg. Focus on keeping your knee on your plant leg as still as possible. One cycle is 12:00 (straight forward), 3:00 (side), 4:30 (back and to the side) and 6:00 (straight back) for one cycle. It works your glutes in your plant leg, your hips in the other leg, and all the secondary stabilizing muscles in your lower legs. I do 3 sets of 10 cycles on each leg.

    Steamboats: You tie one end of the theraband to a low-to-the-ground fixed object and put loop on the other side around your ankle on the free leg. You get into position where the theraband is pulling your leg away from you and giving constant resistance. Facing the fixed object, you stand on your plant leg like you’re getting ready to do a single-leg squat but this time you pull your other leg straight back (like going back on a linear leg swing but limited range of movement). Then you quarter turn to the right and then pull your free leg across the plant let to the outside (like a lateral leg swing but smaller range of movement). Another quarter turn and push straight forward into the band. One more and you’re pulling it across your plant leg towards the inside. I do 30 reps each way on each leg, trying to keep your balance for each whole set.

    These exercises work your hips, glutes, secondary stability muscles while massively improving your balance all at the same time. They’re so good I’m almost reluctant to share them.

  21. I love the lunges and all varieties as “pre-game” warmups” as well and straight-legged deadlifts to fully pump the legs so my muscles take /absorb all the stress of pounding and save my crummy knees.

    My last knee surgery ( of 7) was in 1984 and I ran my first marathon in ’88 and recently in ’11 so it has worked.

    I have this article/post pumping out of my printer as I am typing and will play with it and adjust it for my needs and ……. Thank You

  22. Jason, when talking about warmups you say ” 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.”
    This may seem thickheaded, but do you mean choose one before each run or do all five before each run? I assume the former, but wanted to check. Thanks.

  23. I’m dealing with achilles tendonitis right now in both ankles and just started running this week after 6 weeks off. My right IT band seems really really tight the last few days and I think it has to do with the fact I’ve been doing my eccentric heel lift/drops while climbing up and down stairs. Do you reccommend doing the IT Band routine on a daily basis or every other day?

    I’ve dealt with ITBS a few times and it seems to just kind of come and go.


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