Stretching: The Key To Injury-Free Running

Most runners hate to stretch. Especially guys. We complain about lack of flexibility, but do nothing about it.

Most of us who can do two-hour runs (or longer) never seem to be able to find an extra 10 minutes to stretch. Recently, I had one friend tell me something to the effect that real runners don’t stretch. Of course, when he was telling me this he was hobbling around with a calf injury.

But there is absolutely no question about it: A flexible runner is healthier and less prone to common muscular pulls and strains. The more you run, the more you need to stretch. Just a few minute of slow, static stretching of the major muscle groups after every run will prevent muscle soreness and help reduce cramping and the chances of certain injuries. There’s also a payoff in terms of running efficiency as any muscle will work better when it is at its maximum length (i.e., stretched out).

When should you stretch? Before or after running? Stretching before a run is a waste of time. It is far more productive to stretch after running, rather than before. The reason? The muscles are already warmed up and more receptive to a deep, relaxing stretch. Stretching is also part of a good cool down that will promote flexibility and overall body fitness.

If your stretching time is limited (and whose isn’t?), concentrate on stretching the major running muscle groups. That is, learn how to properly stretch the hamstrings, quadriceps, calf, Achilles tendon and soleus as well as the hip flexors.

The best way to learn proper technique how is to take a stretching or yoga class. If possible, find one which is specific for runners. There are numerous yoga studios in Austin that have classes designed specifically for runners and triathletes. Call around and ask whether the studio has a class that’s right for you.

There’s no better way to learn how to stretch properly than to take a class so
we won’t attempt to give you specific stretches to do, but here are some guidelines that will help make stretching more productive:

O Find a quiet, convenient place to stretch. If you’re going to stretch outside after running, bring a blanket.

O Take your time. Give yourself at least 10-15 minutes after every run to stretch the major running muscle groups.

O Find a stretching routine which works for you and stick with it. Go from one muscle group to the next in some sort of regular order. That way you won’t have to think which muscle to stretch next. A consistent routine done on a daily basis is better than a haphazard approach of a little this and a little of that.

O Stretch smoothly and slowly. Don’t jerk or bounce. Try and hold each stretch for at least 20 seconds (if not longer).

O Breath deeply while stretching. Breath similar to the way you breathe when running. Never hold your breath.

O Alternate the leg muscles stretched. That is, stretch the right hamstring, then the left. Right calf, left calf.

O Supplement your stretching. That is, break up your stretching with situps for the abs, calf raises and pushups for the upper body.

O Never force any stretch. If there’s pain or discomfort, avoid the injured muscle. Never stretch through pain.

O Use toys. That is, utilize stretching apparatus such as ropes, balls and use foam rollers to “massage” the muscle soreness.

O Stretch every day. A year-round, consistent stretching program will pay dividends but it may be weeks or months before your body feels differently.