Flexibility may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of running. You’re probably far more likely to think about strength, stamina and – in some cases – suffering. But flexibility, or lack of it, is one of the elements of fitness that can make or break a runner’s training programme. It’s the difference between enjoying running and pushing through the pain barrier.
One reason why flexibility is so important is that, for most of us, the way we use our body for most of the day is at odds with the way we move when we run. For example, if you spend your days sitting at a desk it can be hard to straighten your body sufficiently to ensure safe, effective running. When you sit, you adopt a position with a 90-degree angle at the knees and a 90-degree angle at the hips, which relaxes and shortens hamstrings and hip flexors.
When you stand up, these muscles may not lengthen fully, or certainly not without resistance, and if they remain in a shortened state it’s likely that your pelvis and, in turn, your lower back will eventually become out of alignment. This sort of imbalance can easily lead to injury for a runner.
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Working on your flexibility encourages your muscles to more easily lengthen into a natural position after long periods of inactivity, which reduces the likelihood of injury.
This isn’t to say that you need to acquire yogic levels of flexibility. In fact, being too flexible can be as much of an injury risk as not being flexible enough, as it may lead to instability around certain joints. Even so, as a runner you should incorporate regular stretching into your training plan so that you’re flexible enough to run freely and efficiently.
Working on your flexibility will also help you address any impact that regular running has on your body. Running works the quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves for motion, and many muscles, such as the inner thighs, for stability. These muscle groups contract and relax to cope with the demands we make on our bodies.
This, combined with the physical impact of running on different surfaces, causes micro damage to the muscle tissue, which leads to post- run tightness as the muscles repair themselves in time for the next run. If you don’t stretch, the muscles may remain in a contracted state and, in time, lose the ability to elongate fully. Stretching after each session will encourage the muscles to open out fully, allowing you to run in your natural position every time you take to the streets.
The main reason people choose not to work on their flexibility is that it takes time and there’s a perception that this isn’t time well spent. After all, they reason, stretching doesn’t improve your fitness and it doesn’t help you lose weight. Not directly, no, but think of it like this: if you stretch you’ll be able to run more regularly and more efficiently, which will improve your fitness and help you lose weight, if that is your goal.
You don’t need to spend ages at the end of every workout stretching each area of your body. A short stretch will suffice, provided you get up and move around regularly throughout the day and also sneak in some stretches at the beginning, middle and end of the day. This doesn’t mean you need to clear a space and do a complete stretching routine in the middle of the office, but you can easily and discreetly stretch your calves, hip flexors and other areas prone to tightness.
Ultimately, the amount of work you need to do on your flexibility for running depends on the state of your body, the volume of training you do, the amount of movement you have in your daily routine and whether or not you have any history of injury or weak spots you need to watch out for. Don’t think of stretching as something else
you have to fit into your already packed schedule: think of it as something that’s going to make the rest of your day a little smoother and your running a lot better.
Words by Jeff Archer