For well more than two decades, we have been competing either at a world-class level or coaching high-level athletes and teams in nearly every sporting event you can imagine.
The one practice that unites them all is a thorough warm-up or movement preparation before training or competing.
Ironically, this vital preparation practice is nearly always neglected by recreational athletes or people looking to improve their fitness. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of running. Here’s a scenario that’s probably going to sound familiar: You have a morning run workout scheduled, and you wake up, drink some coffee and go at it, figuring that you’ll warm up as you get going into the session. The problem is that you’re trying to warm up by hammering the pavement with cold and stiff joints, connective tissues, ligaments, tendons and nervous system.
Not only is this strategy counterproductive in the short and long term, but it also flies in the face of foundational practices of every sport on the planet. Ever been to a yoga class where they just throw you into headstands and crazy spinal rotations? Nope. Every serious movement tradition respects the maxim that you need to warm up. And we should perform some kind of movement preparation routine because we know it better inoculates us against potential movement-related dysfunctions and because it universally improves our performance. Want to run faster? Warm up. Want to feel better between runs so you can run more often and farther? Warm up. Great, you say, but what does it mean? What does this practice look like? Here is your plan.
Level 1: No running for 10 minutes. Without adding any skills or complication to your life, simply commit to brisk walking for at least 10 minutes before you break out into an easy trot. There is a lot of complex physiology that can get spun up in the 10-minute gap between stillness and that first step. You’ll be giving your body a chance to shift blood from your digestive system to your legs and lungs. You’ll allow your venous system to return the extra blood that’s been pooling in your legs’ veins to get put into circulation. Your connective tissues will start to perfuse with increased blood flow and you’ll start to switch on your metabolic machinery. It’s a no-brainer. Your body is an extraordinary machine that is designed to run. Give that thing a chance to work in your favor.
Level 2: Use the 10-minute, no-run rule to work on running skills and prep the ranges of motion required to actually run fast. My favorite run prep, believe it or not, is jumping rope. Spending three to four minutes skipping rope will do the following:
- Strengthen your feet
- Wake up and cue correct foot-strike mechanics (no one jumps rope with a heel strike)
- Jump-start your heart and quickly get tissues prepped for the increased loading associated with running
Here is a simple template we use.
- Jump rope for two minutes with your feet together, keeping your big toes connected, followed by 100 skips on your left foot only and then 100 skips on your right foot only.
- Stay a minute or so in the bottom position of your squat with your feet straight ahead. Stand up, squeeze your butt and perform 20 to 30 tempo air squats. Lower yourself down at a two- to three-second pace, pause, take a big breath and stand up at a two- to three-second tempo pace.
- Improve your trailing leg. Get into an exaggerated lunge position. Keep your feet pointed straight ahead and your front shin vertical. Try to get your elbows on the ground while breathing in as deeply as you are able. Spend 30 seconds wiggling around in the position to explore areas that may be restricted. After a minute or so, switch sides and repeat the process.
- Trunk mobility. Since you are already on the ground, drop into Downward-Facing Dog and peddle your feet by alternating bending your knees. After 30 seconds or so, drop all the way down into the bottom position of a push-up with your hands tucked in by your sides and press up to Cobra, keeping your glutes squeezed. Take a big breath and push back into Downward Dog. Repeat this cycle three to five times.
- Agility. Spend two to three minutes skipping, hopping, running backward, running sideways, carioca-ing, jogging with high knees or literally any other leg-related, non-running locomotion you can think of. Feeling warm yet? We thought so. Go slay it.
By Meagan McCrary
My dear friend and meditation partner also happens to be an avid distance runner. We recently sat down to discuss the parallels between running and meditation, something neither of us had thought that much about. We quickly discovered that runners are practicing their own kind of yoga, which doesn’t have to be confined to a practice of poses done on a mat in a class.
Yoga is a mindful activity that demands a certain level of concentration, quieting the mind and drawing you into yourself. Anything done mindfully with some self-awareness can essentially be considered a yoga practice. For example, walking, lifting weights, rock climbing, cooking, painting—when done with intention and a clear presence—can be considered yoga. Distance running, we realized, is its own kind of moving meditation.
Meditation, like running, is hard at first. Not only starting a meditation practice to begin with, but the first few moments or minutes of every meditation (like the first few strides or miles of every run) are also slightly cumbersome. At first, your mind is generally all over the place. You continually lose focus and bring it back to your breath (or mantra or whatever you’re meditating on) over and over again. But then you hit the zone—the meditation zone. You can sit in meditation for long durations with seemingly little effort. Thirty minutes can go by in what feels like five. Runners, sound familiar?
Yogis call hitting the meditation zone “dropping in”—a dropping in to a space where time ceases to exist, below the constant fluctuations of the mind and sensations of the body. My friend explained to me that that is exactly the same with long-distance running and the feeling of “runner’s high,” which doesn’t necessarily feel like a high or total euphoric feeling but rather hitting that state when you can just keep running, when the rhythm of your breath and feet on the pavement take over and you’re in the zone, when runners drop in.
What’s more, distance running requires you to spend time with yourself. Like meditation, it gives you the opportunity to shift through your thoughts and get to know yourself a bit better. And both running and meditation are helpful when it comes to managing stress and anxiety.
Make your runs even more mindful by paying close attention to the way your feet feel with every stride or by focusing on your breath. Try running without music for a little bit and pay attention to what you notice, what’s around you and what thoughts come up. Essentially, make your runs a meditation simply by shifting your intention to be more mindful and know that you’re doing something good for your mind and spirit along with your body.
Photo credit: LMproduction, AdobeStock