The One Essential Dynamic Warm-up: Leg Swings
If you do no other warm-up, do this. Why and how every runner should spend 3 minutes before every run doing leg swings.
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The modern, informed runner knows that before they start their run, they need to do some sort of warm-up. We’re not talking about static stretching, but rather something dynamic. I’ve been coaching for over twenty years and I’ve had athletes do a variety of dynamic warm-ups. When I was a collegiate coach, I had four different warm-ups for milers, each to prepare the athlete specifically for different types of workouts. In my years working with adult marathoners the warm-up typically consisted of two routines, which together, took between five and seven minutes. In both the cases the warm-up’s aim was simple: to properly prepare the athlete to safely handle the running that was about to occur.
Many runners I’ve worked with, especially busy adults with hectic lives, have blocked off 60 minutes – no more, and no less – to workout. Unlike high school, collegiate, and professional runners, who can (and should) devote 15 to 20 minutes of their 2-hour session to the warm-up, busy adults simply need a warm-up that is both short and effective. The following warm-up is short enough to be doable yet impactful enough that it will set you up for long stretches of injury free training.
One of my favorite books, that every runner should check out is Atomic Habits, by James Clear. In it, Clear says, “Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.” For the modern runners there is little doubt that injury-free running, over weeks and months, is rooted in daily habits of doing the “little things” each day that you train. Show me a runner who is injury-free for months and I’ll show you a runner who does these “little things.” Healthy runners do general strength and mobility after each session, and self-therapy at least a few times a week.
The flip side is the injured runner needs to take a hard look at their training and ask, “what are the habits I need to instill to avoid the injury cycle I’m in?” If you want to do things you’ve never done before, then you’ve got to do things you’ve never done before.
It Starts With the Hips
So how do we stay injury-free? Obviously, an intelligent training plan and great coaching are important, but so are things as simple as a dynamic warm-up before every run. On the micro level we simply want a warm-up that is going to set you up to safely run the workout you’re about to do. If you only have a handful of minutes to warm-up, it’s crucial that you focus on getting your hips – both the hip joints, and the muscles surrounding them – ready for the pounding that will take place during the run.
Many common running injuries – a tight IT-band, a sore planter fascia, or something more serious like a stress reaction in the tibia or fibula (the two bones that make up the lower leg) – are often due to dysfunction at the hip. It makes sense that a warm-up that focuses on the hips would help prevent IT-band injuries. What’s less obvious is that injuries further away from the center of the body can often be traced back to dysfunction at the hip.
For these reasons, I assign every athlete I work with leg swings as the mandatory warm-up before each run. They do these dynamic exercises before their first step of running, and they do not static stretch. Once they’ve learned this routine it takes three minutes. Will this eat into your planned run time? Yes. And will it ensure that you can do more runs this year? Yes! Let me explain.
3 Dimensional Movement
One of the key reasons leg swings are so effective is they get your lower body working in all three planes of motion. What are the three planes of motion?
The first one you’re familiar with – it’s the “forward-backward” plane, called the sagittal plane. When we run, we move in the sagittal plane. There is a slight rotation at our hips and shoulder when we run, which you understand intuitively: as your left knee comes up, your right arm comes up too, and as that happens, your right shoulder moves forward just a touch. Your left hip has moved forward a bit as well, though this is harder to visualize. This rotational plane is called the transverse plane. The best runners in the world are so aesthetically appealing in part because they have very little transverse plane movement. Or as I like to say, they have quiet upper bodies. The coordinative aspect of doing leg swings prior to your run gets you moving in both the sagittal plane and transverse plane, preparing you to run more efficiently.
The third plane of motion is the frontal plane. Think of a short stop in baseball moving laterally to field a ground ball. If your next thought is, “but when I run, I don’t move that way” you’re right. Yet your leg can and should easily move in all three planes of motion at the hip joint, and so we’ll need to do some movement in the frontal plane as part of our warm-up, even though you won’t be moving in this plane when you run. Frontal plan movement helps build and maintain your overall athleticism, and athletic runners are less injury prone than unathletic runners.
Rather than try to explain the warm-up here, please take two minutes and fourteen seconds and watch this video to learn the six exercises in the leg swings (LS) routine:
The six exercises are:
- 10 x forward/backward leg swing
- 10 x side to side leg swing
- 10 x hurdle trail-leg forward
- 10 x hurdle trail-leg backward
- 10 x bent-knee side to side leg swing
- 10 x bent-knee forward/backward swing
It will take you a handful of times to memorize the six exercises, which means this will take longer than three minutes. But soon this warm-up will take three minutes or less.
A Daily Self-Check
After a few weeks of doing leg swings before every run, this short routine will become a kinesthetic screen. That simply means that you’ll feel tightness or asymmetries some days that you won’t feel on other days. You can address these issues with some post-run work I’ll explain below. Most of my issues are on my left side. When I’m doing leg swings and my left quad is excessively tight, it’s a reminder that I’ll need to do some extra self-therapy after the workout. It’s also great information to link the previous two days workouts to today. You’ll often find that tightness comes 24 hours after a hard-ish session, and soreness comes 48 hours after a hard session (this is due to the phenomenon of “delayed onset muscle soreness,” known as DOMS).
This is great information to relay to your coach, and may mean you need to adjust your training. By no means am I saying that you skip your run or workout if you’re tight when you go through this routine. But I’m absolutely saying that you should use the kinesthetic information from the warm-up to inform what you do in the other 22 hours of the day (such as finding 10-15 minutes to get in some self-therapy if you’re overly tight).
The Minimum Habit
If you pay attention to what’s being said in the video, you’ll notice that I talk about doing the lunge matrix (LM). I used to have runners start with the lunge matrix, but I now have athletes make the leg swings mandatory – you don’t get to start the run without doing the leg swings. Then, if they have time, they can add the lunge matrix to the warm-up.
What I’ve found over the years is that the adult who feels rushed would often skip both routines, and long term that will likely lead to injury. For this reason, you simply need to ingrain the habit that before every run you’ll do leg swings. A quote a friend of mine likes to use comes to mind regarding leg swings: this routine is “small enough to be doable, but big enough to be meaningful.” Start with a commitment to devote three minutes to do leg swings before each run.
If you want to do more work in the warm-up, I’d highly encourage you to do so. You can add a variety of routines and exercises after you do leg swings. Here are two options I recommend:
The lunge matrix has worked for thousands of runners for years, though you’ll need to commit to two to four weeks of doing it before every run before you feel like it’s helping your run. For adults new to running, or new middle school and first year high school runners, I’ll often assign the lunge matrix at the end of the workout as a general strength activity. As with the leg swings, the lunge matrix gets you moving in all three planes of motion, and for this reason it’s a great routine to add to your training.
Alternatively, I love Phil Wharton’s active isolated flexibility work, aka “rope stretching” — but as a cool-down, not warm-up. If you have abnormal tightness, or worse yet, if you have a significant asymmetry when doing the leg swings, you need to be doing this type of work after the run. If not then, do it an hour before bed (and ideally both, though I struggle to get in the second session – easier said than done).
The bottom line: You owe it to yourself to improve your chances of staying injury-free by devoting just three minutes to leg swings before each run. You can do more work if you want – and I recommend you do – but the key for the next 20, 30, 40 days is to simply do the leg swings before every run. Make it a habit, and soon you won’t have to talk yourself into it — it will be as routine as putting on your shoes.
Jay Johnson helps runners of all ages and abilities with free training articles and videos at www.coachjayjohnson.com. You can find him on social media at @coachjayjohnson.