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Why Runners Should Do Muscle Activation Exercises

Emma Coburn demonstrates the bird dog activation exercise

There are some runs where everything just clicks, movements are smooth and you feel as if you could run forever. Then there are the runs when you can’t seem to shake off the sluggishness and the miles seem to drag on forever. So, what’s the difference? Oftentimes, it’s what you do before the run that matters most.

Everyone knows a proper warm up is a critical component of a safe and effective workout, but what should a warm-up include? What is the best way to prime the body for activity, and avoid feeling like you are just treading water or wading through quicksand?

It comes down to a practice called muscle activation, which prepares the body for the specific set of demands that is to follow. Activation “wakes up” certain muscle groups, and assists you in establishing efficient, biomechanically correct movement patterns.

Boris Berian in a dynamic warm up

What is muscle activation?

First, let’s define the term. Simply put, muscle activation is “an exercise that assists a muscle fire in the way it was intended to,” says Martine Marino, a licensed physical therapist with Novacare in Pittsburgh, PA. “This is referred to a lot of times as neuromuscular re-education.”

In other words, activation-based exercises target the appropriate muscles designed for a specific activity and, in turn, reinforce the brain-body connection. These exercises help establish a stronger communication link, so the body is better prepared to move in the intended way and fire from the right spots.

Activation-based exercises not only produce a stronger mind-muscle connection, but can also induce a state of preparedness in the athlete that can increase their overall capacity while helping prevent injury.

“Activation exercise is a low-intensity exercise that is designed to activate a muscle that will prepare the body for more intense activity,” says Frank Velasquez, Jr., the Director of Sports Performance at Allegheny Health Network. “The strengthening of these muscles will also help to better protect the joints they surround from unnecessary stress.”

How can muscle activation boost performance?

By activating certain muscle groups prior to a workout, these exercises encourage efficient, effective movement while at the same time discouraging poor biomechanics which could lead to a subpar performance or even injury.

By teaching the body exactly what you expect it to do, you can mitigate the chances of misuse or overcompensation resulting from overdeveloped muscle groups or range of motion limitations.

“A common misfiring pattern for runners is the tensor fascia latae and quadratus lumborum being substituted for the gluteus medius,” says Marino. “The gluteus medius is one of the most important stabilizing muscles in running. Weakness and/or inhibition of this muscle during running can lead to hip, knee or back pain.”

Further, she says that an activation-based routine can aid in performance by helping combat muscle imbalances. This not only improves your running efficiency, it also decreases your chance of injury.

Is muscle activation for everybody?

Of course! Activation-based exercises can be done by anyone. They’re also beneficial if you’re recovering from an injury or simply want to develop better overall movement patterns and mechanics in your daily life. Activation exercises are low-impact and low-intensity, and many do not even require any additional equipment.

How and when should I perform activation-based exercises?

An activation routine is most effective when combined with a dynamic warm-up. A dynamic warm-up is a movement-based practice that helps increase body temperature, blood flow to the muscles and synovial fluid production to the joints. In other words, the dynamic warm-up will make your body more responsive to activation-based exercises.

“Dynamic stretching preps the muscle and joints to receive load and stretch,” says Marino. “It also helps prepare the nervous system for the activity. In runners with muscle imbalances, activation can be important during the warm up as it reminds the muscle how to behave and contributes to muscle memory.”

The more effective your warm up is, the more effective (and comfortable) your workout will be. Although it may still take a little bit of time to really get in the groove and hit your stride, incorporating a thorough warm up will decrease the time it takes for this to happen while simultaneously minimizing your risk of injury.

Velasquez, Jr. advocates for this all-inclusive warm-up especially if you’re exercising at higher intensity levels.

“Doing an active or dynamic warm up should be done first to get the body moving and the blood pumping,” he says.

“Then, after that, the activation exercises can be performed prior to the more intense activity. Studies show that activation exercises should be done within 10-15 minutes of the more intense activity.”

Although activation can help boost performance, reduce injuries and avoid the sluggish feelings during a run, it’s important to note that it’s not a cure-all for poor mechanics or chronic muscle imbalances. While a little bit can certainly go a long way, muscle activation exercises are best embraced as a life-long practice in order to receive the maximum benefit.

“Thousands of repetitions are needed to re-educate a muscle, so these exercises would need to be done regularly for weeks not just for a few minutes during a warm up,” says Marino.

Try these Muscle activation workouts:

Emma Coburn’s pre-run routine

The Pre-and Post-run Exercises you need to do from Physical Therapist Aaron Knighton

By Timothy Lyman. Timothy Lyman is a health and wellness professional specializing in program development and management. He is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American Council on Exercise and a Performance Enhancement Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

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