By Joli Guenther, MSSW, NASM
Although we all know it’s a good idea to mix flexibility training in with our cardio workouts, many runners are in the dark about how to get the most from their stretching sessions. Physical benefits of a consistent stretching routine include improved performance, reduced injury and muscle soreness and a better transition to post-workout activities. Stretching also offers psychological benefits, allowing you to prepare for the workout ahead or bask in the improved psychological well-being that comes from completing a good workout. If your current routine is limited to a few halfhearted quad stretches before your morning run, it’s time to rework your approach to flexibility training.
Flexibility work can be divided into pre-run and post-run. The best way to warm up prior to your run is to begin at a slower pace and to add in a few dynamic movements for areas that have been especially tight or prone to injury. In practice, this might mean starting with a walk or slow jog for five minutes, then completing a few stretches for your hip flexors and calves through some simple lunges and long stepping movements before continuing with the remainder of your run. Check out this link for a more detailed pre-run, dynamic stretching routine. (Hint, there are also some great static stretches here for afterwards.) If you don’t currently stretch before your runs and you’re not experiencing an injury or excessive tightness, there is no benefit to stretching prior to your run. In fact, some recent research has shown that stretching before a run does not appear to reduce injury at all, and there is always some risk of injury involved in starting any new routine.
Post-run stretching is the best time to work on improvements in flexibility. If your schedule permits, this can be a great time to enjoy a yoga or Pilates session for runners, but you can also gain benefits from as little as five minutes of targeted stretching. Your muscles are warm, so you’re less likely to injure yourself during your stretch and more likely to challenge the flexibility of your muscles. This approach also gives you a chance to target areas of your body that get especially sore after your workout, such as calves, quads, glutes and hamstrings.
Your post-run stretching routine should utilize more traditional “static” stretches, focusing on one muscle and holding a gentle stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds, up to 60 seconds. Avoid bouncing in and out of the stretch, and consider repeating the stretch gently once or twice instead to get even greater benefits to your flexibility. You should also avoid stretching to the point that you feel pain or feel the muscle begin to tighten up. A good stretching routine is highly individual, but areas that tend to need a little attention for runners include: glutes, hip abductors, hip adductors, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, quadriceps and the IT band. For a good stretching routine targeting all of these areas, click on the link given earlier in this article. Foam rolling can also be a great post-run routine. Check out my last post for more info on that. With a little care, you'll find that the five minutes of stretching at the end of your workout are your favorite of the day.
Weigh In: Are you a runner or walker with a regular stretching routine? What works for you?