Running and Stretching

Running and Stretching

There has been a great deal of information published in the lay literature and peer-reviewed literature regarding the benefits of stretching. Many experts have chimed in on the topic but, clearly, a consensus has not been reached. There are the "no stretch" people, and the "before exercise" people and the "after exercise" people and the "long stretch" people and the "quick stretch" people. And if you do stretch, what should you stretch? The goal of the following discussion is to give some clarification to what stretches runners should do when. Some of the following is based on research, some is based on knowledge gained from the opinions of experts speak, and finally, some is from my personal experiences treating runners and being a runner.

Why stretch? I recommend stretching for 2 reasons. The first is to prevent and treat chronic injury. The second is to gain speed for a given workload, sometimes referred to as running economy. Frequently, these 2 reasons overlap. While running, there are certain patterns of muscle firing that happen over and over again. These patterns tend to facilitate tightness in these muscle groups. Tightness in a muscle group tends to change posture at rest and with activity. These postural changes affect the way joints are loaded and encourage inappropriate muscle firing patterns to be reinforced. Poor firing patterns and altered joint loading equals injuries.

Additionally, there are specific joints of the body that need to move freely in order to survive the demands that running puts on the body, while there are other portions of the body that need to be stable, still and strong. The pattern for walking and running gait well tends to go as follows. The body needs to be free at the 1st toe, stable through the foot, free through the ankle, stable at the knee, free at the hip, stable at the lumbar (lower spine), free at the thoracic (upper spine), stable though the neck and free through the shoulders. (The foot can be a little more complicated than described here, refer to back to the May 2008 Newsletter for more details.)

Priorities for stretching are ankle dorsiflexion (calf stretches), hip mobility (hamstrings, hip flexors, adductors and external rotators), thoracic spine mobility ( mostly rotation) and shoulder flexion (lat/pect stretches). For most runners, this list can be prioritized further. For most runners, mobility of the calves, hip flexors, and thoracic spine rotation should be on the first tier of importance. Second tier would include: hamstrings, hip rotators, hip adductors, quads and lats. This is not true for everyone, but a good starting place. If you have a chronic injury that you are managing, this list may change in priorities and may have some additional stretches.

Timing. Most runners will benefit from stretching anytime they get the chance. Running is very demanding on the body and as sedentary as modern lifestyles are, we spend way too much time in one place, usually staring at a monitor. The more times you stretch the better condition you will be in for the next run. I do recommend stretching after runs consistently. In this case for any given stretch I recommend some gentle oscillations in and out of the stretch before a prolonged hold. These oscillations are not rapid and mostly generated by the momentum of the limb. The prolonged hold needs to be at least 30 seconds to be of value and should be held at a sustainable intensity, (not, oh-my-god-my-leg-is-going-to-rupture intensity). This hold can be longer than 30 seconds if your body feels like it needs it, or hasn't given up a little slack in the allotted time. Repeating a stretch again has some value, but most of the benefit (~70%) is on the first prolonged hold. Pre-run is a more personal decision and depends on the feel at the moment. Typically, I do a gentle round of oscillations prior to a run and assess of anything needs more attention. For me this is usually hip flexors and calves, but that may be from my bicycling habit. If it is first thing in the AM, I believe also I benefit from thoracic spine mobility.

Prior to a race, I will have stretched well the night before, and if anything is especially tight, I will stretch just that muscle group again the next morning. Then at the race, I will do a warm-up run, and finish with gentle oscillations, hopefully timed so I have about 3 minutes to line-up and go.

Practical wisdom suggests that learning more than 3 new exercises at one time is problematic at best. My intent is to have a full stretching program for running posted on the Rockcoast Runner's web page (rockcoastrunners.com), as well as the Snow Sport and Spine (snowsportandspine.com) web page by press time. Described here are 3 exercises to address the most common overlooked running restrictions.


#1 Hip flexor stretch

Hip flexor stretch photo
  1. Stand two feet back from step

  2. Place Right foot on step

  3. Keep trunk upright and pelvis facing forward

  4. Bring body weight forward while bending L knee slightly and allowing heel to lift

  5. As you come forward, lift both arms overhead


#2 Calf stretch

  1. Put hands or forearms against wall

  2. The leg to be stretched is placed behind the other

  3. Knee of back leg is straight ( may also repeat stretch with back knee bent as well)

  4. Both feet are pointed straight ahead (the back foot will want to toe out

  5. Lift your big toe up and weight the outside of the foot

  6. Lean forward and keep heel down

Calf stretch photo


#3 Thoracic Spine Mobility

Thoracic Spine Mobility photo 1

Thoracic Spine Mobility photo 2

  1. Lie on R side with L knee draped over R leg

  2. Put L hand behind head. Inhale.

  3. Exhale and rotate head and torso back, while maintaining knee position on floor.

  4. Return to starting position. Repeat 5-7 times and switch sides.

 


 

Stretch!

Stretching should be a component of your running regime. It will help prevent injuries from repeated stress, and should make running at any given speed easier. Stretching will help many of us lengthen our stride as well, which will also make us faster for very little change in effort. It does take some time and some discipline, but the rewards are likely easier, faster running, and who doesn’t want that?

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