Stretching for runners is a hotly contested topic. This article details how runners should safely incorporate stretches into their training regime for maximum benefit.
What is stretching?
Stretching is a form of physical activity where a specific muscle or tendon is flexed or ‘stretched’ to improve muscle’s elasticity, flexibility and range of motion.
We all remember the pain of sports class in school where we had to try touching our toes in a painful downwards bend, resembling a deflated zombie. This fun (detect the sarcasm) exercise is an example of stretching.
Popular examples of common stretches are overhead triceps stretches and quad stretches.
What are the benefits of stretching?
Stretching is sometimes painful. After all, putting tension on your muscles doesn’t sound like the most fun experience in the world.
so, why bother stretching? There are tonnes of benefits associated with stretching. These include:
- Improved flexibility
- Pain relief
- Injury prevention
- Release tension
- Increased blood circulation
Okay, we’ve covered what stretching is and what it’s benefits are. Let’s talk about stretching in a running context.
What’s the ‘stretching debate’ for runners?
For many years, the question of when to stretch has been on the lips of many runners. To stretch before the run or after?
Some believe you should stretch before a run to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury, whilst others deem a post-run stretch crucial for injury prevention and performance.
However, the question shouldn’t be whether you should stretch before or after the run. It should be what type of stretching you do before and what type you do after the run.
For many years, people thought static stretching before a run was best. Stretching before physical activity would open up the muscles to receive increased blood flow and prepare them for the intense motion to come. Surely that would be the most effective way of getting ready for a run and preventing injury. However, many experts now think static stretching before a run increases the risk of injury and is less effective for preparing the muscles to move.
“Static stretching before exercise can cause damage to the tissue,” says physical therapist Jason Gromelski, “You’re inhibiting nerve contraction, so it’s not going to fire as quickly to tell the muscle to contract and perform. That leads to less force production, so your speed will go down.”
If you want to reduce the risk of injury, improving your range of motion is more important than flexibility. It’s more important to be able to pump your legs and arms in a comfortable range of motion for running at top performance, than it is to be able to touch your toes. This is where dynamic stretching comes in.
Dynamic stretching before the run, static stretching after the run
To stay injury-free whilst improving your range of functional motion, do some dynamic stretching before the run. Dynamic stretches are active movements that stretch the muscles in the middle of an active motion, without staying still for too long. Unlike static stretches which are done on the spot without any motion, dynamic stretches are done whilst on the move.
If you have the time, take 5 to 10 minutes before your run to do some dynamic stretches to prepare your body for the exercise that’s about to come.
Once the run is finished, blood is more freely circulating through the muscles which is the best time to complete static stretches.
5 dynamic stretches to do before running
Dynamic stretches include exercises like high knees, leg swings, a very light jog and skipping. Light exercises which get the blood pumping, increase heart rate and body temperature and prepare the body for physical activity. The idea of a dynamic stretching session is that it’s light, not too intense and acts as a warm up.
Super-easy light jog
Do a super-easy jog, for 60-90 seconds, to get your body used to moving and to encourage blood flow to the muscles. Take it incredibly slow, don’t exert yourself and relax. This exercise is all about taking things calmly.
Closing the gate hip stretch
Excellent for increasing hip mobility and the range of motion in your running stride, opening and closing the gate is a great dynamic exercise.
Standing up, swing one leg inwards towards the centre until you make contact with the floor, move forward and take a step, lift the opposite leg and swing it inwards and repeat for 15 reps. The motion should resemble closing a gate or door.
You can also do this in reverse to resemble opening a gate to work for a slightly different stretch.
If you’re able to hold something like a railing, a person or a tree, this dynamic stretch will be slightly easier. If not, try your best to balance.
Stand on one foot and swing the other leg backwards and forwards for at 10-15 reps before changing to the other leg. This stretch engages the glutes, hamstrings whilst strengthening your core. If you’re balancing without holding onto anything for support this will also improve your balance.
You can change this stretch up by moving the leg from side to side, left to right, once you’ve finished 15 reps on both the left and left legs backwards and forwards.
A popular warmup exercise, the walking lunge activates your glutes, opening up your legs, and working on your stride length.
In an open area of 10-15 metres, take one large stride forward and lower your knee towards the floor whilst keeping your shoulder blades upright. Keep your core engaged and strong and ensure you can see just the edge of your leading shoe. If you can see more than just the top of your leading shoe, you’ve gone forward too far so be sure to bare this in mind.
30-45 seconds should be enough to reap the benefits of this dynamic stretch.
You can either do this standing on the spot or in motion. As we’re talking about dynamic stretches in a running context, i’d recommend that you do the high knees exercise whilst moving forward.
Using the balls of your feet to propel you upwards, drive the knees nice and high by bouncing up and down just up to your hip whilst moving forwards. Do this for 30-45 seconds and you should be good to go.
5 static stretches to do after running
The main benefit to doing static stretches is to increase your range of motion. The best, most safest way, to do this is after running. At this time, blood is in the muscles and they should be fairly loose after the workout. Now is the time to get a nice deep stretch in to relieve any tension and lengthen the muscles safely.
Immediately after the run, gradually come to a stop with a light jog which gets slower and slower. Don’t let your muscles go from being in motion to nothing really quickly. Coming to a halt progressively after a run is better for winding down the body and preventing injury.
So, after coming to a stop it’s time to do some static stretches whilst the muscles are still warm and blood is more rapidly circulating within the body.
The quadriceps take lots of pressure whilst running so it’s always a good idea to stretch them out after a run.
Grab your ankle and pull it gently to your buttocks, keeping balance with your other foot. Don’t pull your ankle too aggressively towards the bottom of your back. You want to feel a gentle stretch which puts a little pressure on your quadriceps which will be enough to give them a good stretch. Do this for 15 seconds before switching to the other leg.
Find something to lean your hands against. Preferably a wall, but a tree or somebody will do (if they don’t mind being leaned into!). Put one leg out in front and put one back. Keep the back leg nice and straight, and lean forward with your hands. You will feel a deep stretch in the back of your calf muscle.
Hip flexor stretch
Throughout the run, your hips will most likely become tight. To alleviate this tightness, lean forward and drop your trailing knee to the floor and lean forward slightly with your hands on your leading knee to keep balance. You will feel a light stretch at the top of the hips. Hold this for 10-15 seconds before switching to the other side.
A pulled hamstring is one of the most common injuries for runners so it’s incredibly important to stretch this muscle after each run.
Bringing you back to your school sports class days, lean forward with your palms pointed towards your toes and drop down until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstrings. Don’t bob up and down, and don’t force the stretch further than you can manage. 15-20 seconds should be enough to get a decent hamstring stretch in.
Child’s pose (lower back)
Runners sometimes get lower back pain so including this in your static stretch routine post-run is a great idea. To do this stretch, sit in a kneeling position and sit on the top of your feet and walk your hands forward until you get a gentle stretch in your lower back. Hold this position for 10-20 seconds.