When it comes to flexibility, running works muscles in the polar opposite direction. There’s a really big scientific explanation for it and I could write a lengthy jargon-filled post emphasizing the body’s natural physiological adaptations to running, but one- as a grad student I do things like that on the daily and two- very few people would find it entertaining. So let’s get straight into the debate!
“Stretch to prevent injuries.” “Stretching is bad for runners and can inhibit performance.” “If you want to run fast, don’t stretch.” I have heard it all about stretching from formal classroom training, scientific research, and from many people out in the running community. It can be hard to figure out what’s right from wrong, but honestly the best thing you can do when it comes to stretching is to know your body. I’m talking about taking a few minutes each day to check-in with how you are feeling; find areas of tightness or areas that have lingering tension. Stretching is very individualized and one generic recommendation does NOT fit all. What should you do then?
I say that every runner should incorporate some type of stretching into his or her routine. Functionality is extremely important in my opinion and it’s a key player in how I tailor my workouts. I need a substantially large range of motion for things that I am doing in my daily life outside of running; without it, I increase my risk of injury and an injured runner isn’t a happy runner. As a runner/yogi, I feel like I perform better when I am in tip-top yoga shape, however I am aware that lots of people are not fond of yoga and suggesting that everyone should add yoga to their regimen would be very naïve of me. I am also the runner that tends to head out the door too quickly without a warm-up and also neglect my hamstrings post-run, so yoga is one way that I commit myself to flexibility. Not into yoga? Don’t worry! There are other easy ways to incorporate some stretching into your routine!
- Pre-run: Add 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretches. This can be anything from walking lunges, to butt-kicks, to high-knees, to leg swings. You are essentially warming your body up for the work it is about to do. Stretching cold muscles can actually cause harm and should be avoided prior to warming up. Think of it this way, in the winter [if you live where it gets very cold and snowy] you wouldn’t take your car out immediately without letting the engine warm up.
- Post-run: Add 5-10 minutes of static stretches. Static stretches include things like the typical hamstring stretch, quadriceps stretch, butterfly stretch, and calf stretch. This is the time to focus on increasing flexibility. Immediately following a workout, your muscles are warm and elastic, so aim to hold these stretches for 15-20 seconds.
- During the day: Get up and move! There is nothing worse for your body than nailing a workout and having to go sit at a desk for 8 hours. Your hamstrings and hip flexors can get extremely tight. Try getting up at least once every hour for 2-3 minutes to stretch out your body. Getting your blood flowing can also help you get through that post-lunch time slump.
Stretching is very important not only for preventing injury, but it is an activity that can have life-long benefits. Start small and build your way up! Every little bit counts- even over the course of the day. Whether you choose to believe stretching is a necessity, or something a runner should do less of, just make sure you are listening to your body. In the mean time, you can catch me on my yoga mat because I won’t be defined as a runner who can’t touch her toes.