A Runner’s Basic Guide To Stretching

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There can be some confusion around the role stretching has to play in a runner’s training. Many people swear by their own specific stretch routines, while many more ignore stretching completely – either by active choice or by not feeling there’s enough time for it.

This article gives you the basics around stretching, to allow you to make an informed decision about its importance for you.

The science

At its simplest, the main reason for stretching is to increase the range of motion at the joints. Improved range of motion means improved running efficiency.

When a muscle is stretched, the neuron activity in the muscle decreases, which relaxes the muscle. A relaxed muscle leads to this improved range of motion because of reduced resistance (greater flexibility).

When a muscle is first stretched, the muscle spindles, found within the muscle, sense a change in the muscle length and they send a signal to the spine, which in turn triggers the stretch reflex.

This reflex resists the increase in muscle length by causing the muscle to contract. It’s for this reason that stretches should be held for a sufficient amount of time (see below) to minimise the stretch reflex and gain the benefits of the stretch.

The more rapidly the muscle length increases, the stronger the reflex is – which is why it’s important to ease into any stretching you do.

Should I stretch before or after my run?

It’s the million-dollar question…

Many years ago the accepted wisdom was to stretch prior to running. While there is still some debate, it’s now widely accepted that stretching after your run is the more optimal time.

Stretching before your run means you’re probably working with cold muscles (stretching is best done when the muscles are warm – either through exercise or something like a warm bath). Pre-run stretching is also likely to decrease the force production of the muscle in question while running.

You should include an active warm-up prior to any running session. Often, brisk walking or very easy-effort running is sufficient, but you can also include some dynamic exercises.

How to stretch

There are a few different types of stretch, such as static, dynamic, and ballistic, among others. Again, there is some debate around the effectiveness of each.

Regardless, the most important points are to ease slowly into a stretch – no sudden or forced movements.

Hold the stretch for at least 30-45 seconds to gain the benefits of the stretch and to move past the muscle’s initial resistance to the stretch.

Repeat the stretch on each side (if applicable), and ensure you stretch the main muscle groups involved in running – calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hips at minimum.

In addition to post-run stretching, you may wish to include activities such as yoga or pilates as part of a balanced and rounded weekly training schedule, to further improve flexibility, suppleness and range of motion to help you with your running.

Potential risks

When stretching a muscle, the muscle will stretch at its weakest point. This can be a cause for concern if you’re carrying a muscle injury.

You shouldn’t feel any pain when stretching – instead, you should feel a gentle stretch which you ease into and hold. If there’s pain, ease off and focus on specific rehab exercises to target the area of concern.

Weak muscles should be strengthened prior to subjecting them to any significant stretching.

A caveat – and the bottom line

The role of stretching in running has been a hotly debated area for many years, and continues to be. It can be hard to cut through the noise – the “do this”, “don’t do that”. Data on the subject of stretching is still somewhat inconclusive, but the one thing to be sure of is the importance of flexibility in contributing to efficient running.

To that end, the information in this article should serve as guidance for you when it comes to stretching within your running schedule.

Get into a habit of 5-10 minutes of stretching after each run to improve the chance of effective recovery, improved efficiency, and potentially reduced injury risk.

Additional activities like yoga or pilates will provide an added benefit to all-round flexibility.

Remember that it’s up to you to continue to see yourself as an experiment of one, taking on board accepted wisdom while finding and applying what works for you.

When it comes to running and all that comes with it, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and there never will be.

Focus on learning about you and tweaking aspects of your training to improve you as a runner, including the strength and flexibility of your body.

If you have any questions or would like to find out more, get in touch using the box below. 

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