Learning to stretch as a runner

May 6, 2011 at 8:01 am 1 comment

Inspired to go enjoy the sunshine with a little outdoor activity yesterday? Feeling a little sore today? Now what?

Stretching after a run is one of the most satisfying feelings. My muscles are nice and warm so my legs tend to be a little looser, and it feels so great to let that final bit of tension out. However, I wasn’t always a fan of stretching. When I first started running (I only became a serious runner the summer before my senior year of college when I began to train for my first 10k), I was not very good at stretching. I already had trouble with the time commitment of a regular running routine, and stretching seemed like a corner I could cut to spare myself those few precious minutes. What a mistake that was! The stronger my legs became, the more inflexible too. I lost all of the stretch I had built up from 14 years of dance, and began to notice that my legs generally felt stiff the day after my runs. When I began to train for my first half marathon the following summer, I finally learned my lesson. I would have some hip pain after long runs, and learned that stretching was an essential way to deal with that. I am now much better about stretching after I run, and even have learned to use the roller for my IT band (ouch!).

My roommate has recently begun to incorporate more dynamic and ballistic stretching into her post-run routines at the recommendation of a friend’s physical therapist. Dynamic stretching is “taking your muscles through a large range of movement in a steady and rhythmical fashion.” Ballistic stretching is like dynamic stretching, but the movements are faster, sharper, and slightly less controlled. She claims that this gives her a deeper hamstring stretch and has helped her prevent re-injuring her knee. However, I was skeptical, since the one take-away message from all the stretching that I learned in dance was to never bounce while you stretch. I decided to do a little bit of research to learn what experts (aka Google) could teach me on the subject. Looks like we should both learn to trust each other in our respectful areas of expertise. While I may know what I am talking about in the kitchen, she is the expert on all things sporty and athletic. Maybe I should take my own advice!

My research on stretching for runners turned up a few interesting finds:

Static stretching of leg muscles is best post-run, or after a 5-10 minute light warm up, since they are looser and less likely to get injured. To think of it in a more relatable way, imagine a big stretchy rubber band. Now imagine the difference between stretching that rubber band after it has been in the freezer for an hour, and stretching that rubber band on a really warm afternoon. A lot easier to stretch when its warm, right? Your leg muscles work the same way, and stretching when you are warmed up will be easier, feel better, and be less likely to lead to muscle tears and injury.

Dynamic and ballistic stretching of leg muscles is a good option for a warm-up stretch, since the movement built into the stretching routine will help to warm your leg muscles up. You should start out with slow, controlled, dynamic stretches to help warm your muscles up, and then ramp up towards faster ballistic stretches towards the end.

Dynamic and ballistic stretching do not help to improve flexibility; they only help prevent injury in serious athletes by increasing range of motion in your joints. Static stretching will help to improve flexibility, and the longer you hold a stretch, the more flexible your muscles will become.

With all of this being said, ballistic stretching is still only recommended for people working with therapists or who are serious athletes. Most people tend to overpower the motion intended for a ballistic stretch, which can lead to muscle tears and injury. Dynamic stretching is the safer intermediate, in which you still incorporate movement with your stretching, but do so in a controlled and rhythmical way.

Here is a great pre-workout dynamic stretching routine from Runner’s World to help improve range of motion and prevent injury. Here or here are some ideas for post-run static stretches to help improve flexibility and prevent injury. Simple yoga poses are also great for runners, and can be used as recovery or incorporated as part of training to help improve speed, endurance and flexibility.

Question: Do you stretch before or after your work-outs? What are your favorite stretches? I stretch after my runs, and my favorite stretch is a hip opener that stretches the piriformis muscle. This muscle helps with lateral hip flexion, and has really helped my hip pain during long runs. You start by placing your ankle over your knee (you can do this standing up or sitting down). If standing, bend your standing leg and bring your butt down towards your ankle while feeling the stretch deep in your bent leg’s hip. If seated, the motion is the same except you are in a folded, seated position.

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