Stretching For Runners – How Important Is It And Where To Start?
I sometimes think back of my age of innocence when I began to run. I had nearly no knowledge of anything associated with beginners running, all I thought was ‘put some shoes on and run’. No idea of the gear, food, training plans, hydration, types of running, let alone something called stretching.
I stretched in the morning when I yawned in bed, would that be the same thing? I saw a cat stretch, should I copy her? I stretch to reach a book from the top shelf, does that qualify?
Actually, what is stretching for runners or athletes in general? Is it important, is it really necessary, what do we need to do?
The benefits of stretching for runners
Let’s first assume you stretch properly. If you do, then the immediate benefit will be an improved and increased motion in your joints. That itself is worth an effort but there’s more. Your blood flow will increase and you will move better because the feeling of stiffness will decrease.
All that put together will help deliver better performance, you will run with more ease, faster and in less discomfort.
The more flexible your muscles, joints and tendons become you will be more likely to diminish the risk of injuries. In other words, your running body needs some tender loving care and a good stretching routine provides it.
That sounds good, you’ve got my interest, so what stretches are the best for runners?
There are two groups. Warming up for the run through dynamic stretching, and cooling down after the run with static stretching.
Before the run your muscles are cold and not too flexible. If you are running before the winter dawn they will be even colder and less flexible so it’s a good idea to give them a little workout. That’s what’s called….
In order to ease pressure on your muscles, loosen up and improve the range of your leg motion you should spend a little time warming up before running, around 10 or so minutes by doing dynamic stretching.
You may not think this is important but try and compare how you run when you are properly warmed up as opposed to just starting to run as fast as you can without it. You’ll notice an immediate difference.
You will simply feel better. You’ll run better.
If you visit a sports event, from football to the athletics, you will see the athletes warming up before they go out there to give their best shot. And there’s a good reason for it.
Heart rate will go up, blood flow will increase, you will warm up and will run easier and more efficiently.
I often combine dynamic stretching and slow jogging warm-up with my jacket still on when I’m about to go for a long winter run. As I fully warm up, I leave the jacket in my car and pick up pace. After the run you’ll need to cool down and then it’s time to try some……
In order to increase your range of motion, static stretches are the place to visit. If you see a person either standing up, or sitting still or lying down in a single position for 30 seconds or more, it’s likely that some sort of static stretching is taking place there.
The key is to do static stretching AFTER the run, when you are fully warmed up and the blood is in your muscles and the muscles can be nicely lengthened with some deep stretching.
If you do this sort of exercise before the run when your muscles are cold, you are potentially risking an injury. Don’t go there or you may end up doing more harm than good.
What if I don’t stretch after running?
Why wouldn’t you? It will only take up to 10 minutes anyway and you are doing something that your body will appreciate.
Ok, if you have only just finished a very slow 5 minute run and hardly broke sweat then fine.
But if you have just completed 6×400 meters intervals and your blood is pumping and the whole body is sweating then it would be a good idea if you did stretch. If you don’t you may increase the tightness, the muscles may pull on joints and that can be painful.
Try and see stretching, before and after your run, as the overall process of running. When you’ve taken your shower you’ll still spend a few minutes drying your skin with your bath towel and that’s the overall process of having a shower.
Running is the same if you think about it.
Can I get injured when stretching?
Yes you could. If you attempt some of the harder static positions and attack the poor muscle, you will risk an injury by potentially causing tears in it.
Remember the golden rule – warm up with dynamic stretching, cool down with static stretching.
Don’t reverse those two!
Can I run faster if I stretch
Stretching alone will not make you faster but it can be a positive contributing factor. A part of your running arsenal.
We all had issues like tightness in the back of our legs and inability to run with longer strides. And sometimes we ended up with painful calf muscles or even cramps if we were unfortunate enough.
The good news is, stretching can improve your stride and I discovered that in my case a longer and faster stride made me (surprise, surprise) a faster runner. You’ll never see me receive the Olympic medal but at 57 I managed to bring my 5K time down from 31 minutes to just a few seconds over 25 minutes.
But how? Well, prepare yourselves to be surprised.
I have achieved it by doing daily stretching that helped me loosen up my muscles and increase my stride, hence increasing my running pace!
How often should I stretch?
I stretch daily, some people stretch only when they run, some follow a specific program as advised by their running coach or a physio.
It’s important, like anything else, not to overdo it.
I feel great when I do simple stretches before and after the run but I also cross-train through martial arts which brings another set of stretches, some very different to my usual running routine. I can spend watching a whole evening movie at home while sitting on the floor and stretching.
The good news is, that way I opened up more and became more flexible, but on the other side I started to feel a deep ping in my hip as a clear sign that I was overdoing it.
It’s very important to strike the right balance, it would be counterproductive to get hurt while trying to get better, no?
And finally – Foam Roller
Have you heard of a foam roller? Little (or not so little) spiky rubbery things that you may have seen in the gym or around places where sporty people live? The little guy can be used to help break up tightness in your muscle, increase flexibility and reduce soreness. A very useful and helpful little fellow.
It’s very beneficial if you foam roll before you stretch, as you will then be able to lengthen the muscle with stretching, but you can also use it afterward when the muscles are warm.
Foam rollers come in different sizes, colours and softness, with the softest being the best ones for the beginners. Try, it will help the overall stretching process and help you run even better.
Many amateur runners see stretching as something not really important, some see it as a waste of time even.
Like a good diet, training programs and proper running shoes, stretching is an integral part of the running experience and the way to make it more comfortable and more injury free.
An ageing knee needs looking after, and some gentle dynamic stretches before the run could help avoid problems known as ‘runner’s knee’.
The more we stretch and get more flexibility in our joints, tendons and muscles, the more likely we are to look and feel younger by looking taller when we are older.
I hope that sharing my story, and what I have learned along this journey, will inspire you to get started and to keep going. To keep striving and being the best you can be. In running and in life.
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