If there’s one question which is sure to make runners shift uncomfortably, avoid eye contact and mumble incoherently, then it’s “Do you stretch properly?”
Let’s face it: few of us do. Stretching’s such a drag, baby! Outta my way and let me hit the streets!
In fact, if you don’t stretch then you’ll be shifting uncomfortably for a very, very long time. Without a proper warm-up before your run and warm-down afterwards, you increase the risk of injury – and not just a simple old ache or loose toenail, but serious damage to muscles, tendons and other essential running machinery.
There are two types of stretching. Our traditional idea of stretching is static, where you stay steady and put strain on a particular muscle in isolation. The other type is dynamic, involving movements where you warm up your muscles by using them in an action similar to those in your sport.
Many of us have heard advice that you shouldn’t stretch at all before you train or play. However, what this means is that you shouldn’t do traditional static stretches beforehand – they put undue sudden strain on your ‘cold’ muscles and actually impair your performance. Keep these static stretches for after your run, when your muscles are still ‘warm’ and will benefit from them.
Before your run, you should do dynamic stretches. These movements help to warm up your running machinery gradually and naturally.
So, remember the rule: dynamic before your run and static after.
I’m only a recent convert to pre-run dynamic stretching. In the past, impatient to hit the streets and burn up the tar, I just threw in some quick static leg stretches against the bathroom counter.
Now I take a few minutes to do some dynamic stretches. In my hallway I do 10 very light ‘marching’ steps where I walk forward as I lift my knee high until my thigh is horizontal, and turn back and do them again. Then I do 10 light walking steps where this time instead of lifting my knee in front I flick up my heels behind to almost touch my calf and backside, and turn to do 10 more back. After that, because I find my back gets tense, I roll my shoulders 10 times. (I picked that one up from my days in improvisational theatre classes.)
Added to this, I walk briskly down four flights of stairs. This is because I happen to live on what Europeans call the fourth floor but North Americans consider the fifth floor.
Finally, once I’m out on the street I don’t launch immediately into my scheduled pace – I start off with five minutes of slow and light shuffling.
I’ve found the pre-run dynamic stretching has made a great difference. Not only am I now warming up my muscles properly, but the dynamic actions get my legs ready for good running posture, especially lifting my feet in ChiRunning style.
After my run, and after another five-minute shuffle to warm down, I do the static stretches that most of us are familiar with – extending the various leg muscles in turn and feeling them stretch.
Dynamic stretching is perfect while you’re waiting to start a race – you don’t need to find a barrier or pole or person’s shoulder to lean against, and it’ll keep you a little warmer.
For more on dynamic stretching, including some example exercises, check out this article and the video below, both from Runner’s World magazine: