Of all the joys of running, one of its key attractions is its simplicity. On go your running tights, T-shirt and trusty trainers, and you’re all set. But there’s one nagging issue that turns the simplicity of running into a complex and much debated area of sports science, an issue that every runner wants to know the answer to… do you need to stretch before and after your run? Over the years, dozens of scientific papers have been published on the subject, yet we are still waiting for conclusive evidence either way. It seems that as soon as one study is published suggesting stretching is a necessity, the following week a contradictory paper argues that it’s a waste of time. These conflicting studies confuse fitness professionals, let alone recreational runners. So, just what is the low-down on stretching? Does it actually help prevent injuries, or is it simply a waste of time?
To a large degree, muscle and joint flexibility is genetic. There are some people (and we’ve all seen their party trick) who are able to contort their back, fingers or shoulder joints into eye-watering positions simply because of their genes. Others (like me) have tighter muscles and joints, and feel pained at the mere thought of having to bend forwards and touch the floor with the palms of their hands. This huge variation in joint and muscle flexibility is key in determining how much stretching will benefit your running performance and reduce your risk of injury.
To Stretch or not to stretch
Of all the studies and courses I’ve attended on the subject of stretching, there does appear to be one fact on which most experts agree. It is widely thought that those with a high natural level of flexibility should not overly concern themselves with excessive stretching before or after a run. Although stretching a specific tight muscle is fine, there’s a general opinion that stretching already flexible muscles can actually lead to injury rather than prevent it. Instead, these people’s time would be far better spent strengthening their overly flexible muscles to “glue them” together and make them contract more effectively.
On the flip side of the coin, those with tight muscles should consider investing more time into stretching, not only before and after a run, but on days off as well. Although there are many muscles that could benefit from a good stretch before and after your run, there are five main muscles you should pay particular attention to, as these are prone to becoming excessively tight.
– Rear thighs (hamstrings)
– Calves (gastrocnemius)
– Groin (adductors)
– Hips (hip flexors)
– Front thighs (quadriceps)
These five muscles are the real workhorses during a run, contracting dozens of times every minute. The more work you ask of them, the tighter they are likely to become, so it’s important to ensure they are well stretched before and after you’ve pounded the streets. If any of these muscles are excessively tight when you head out for a run, you are playing Russian roulette with the injury gods. You might get away with it for a few weeks or even months, but sooner or later there will be a point where that tight calf or hamstring?just can’t take the tension any more, resulting in a range of possible injuries, from tendonitis to a muscle tear.
By stretching your tight muscles before and after exercise, as well as throughout the day, you will keep the muscle fibres elongated, thereby reducing any tension in your joints and tendons. You may find you need to stretch more regularly than other people, but if you spend just five to ten minutes stretching every day, targeting these five key muscles, you’ll significantly reduce your chances of developing an injury.
GETTING INTO THE SWING
If you delve deeper into the science of stretching, you’ll realise the subject is far more complex than simply sticking out a leg and bending until you feel the stretch in your muscle. One type of stretching that is highly effective for runners is dynamic stretching. This type of stretch is great for both stretching your muscles and “waking up” your nervous system before a run, and involves using movement and active muscular effort to bring about the stretch. A “static” stretch – where you hold a muscle in a stretch for about 20 seconds – is good for general and long-term flexibility, but before a run it’s better to add a little more dynamism. If your legs feel sluggish or sleepy, a dynamic stretch will encourage blood flow to your muscles, firing them up for the run. To perform a dynamic stretch on the key hamstring muscles, for example, find a wall or static object to hold. Make sure there’s nothing in front or behind you, then slowly start swinging one leg forwards and backwards in a pendulum motion. You’ll find that, over time, you’ll gradually be able to increase your range of movement and your leg will be able to swing higher. Do this for up to a minute on both legs and you’ll find your legs will be raring to go!
Five key stretches
Perform these moves on both legs to boost your bendy credentials!
Stand up straight, then bend your left knee, grab your foot and pull it up towards your bum. For an extra stretch, rotate your pelvis upwards (tuck your tail in).
Extend your right leg in front of you, bending your supporting left leg slightly and resting your hand gently on your left thigh. Slowly lean your upper body forwards, ensuring your back remains straight.
Facing forwards, extend one leg to the side with your foot at a 45 degree angle. Slowly shift your weight into this leg, bending it as you go. The other leg must remain straight with your foot facing forwards.
Placing your hands on a wall, stand with one leg further forward than the other. Bend your front leg, keeping your heel on the ground. Slowly lean forwards, keeping your rear heel on the ground and your back leg straight.
Kneel and extend one leg in front of you, bent at 90 degrees from the hip and 90 degrees from the knee. Rotate your pelvis up (tuck your tail in). This alone might initiate a stretch at the front of your rear leg; if not, move your whole body forwards.
Words by Graeme Hilditch