While some runners say stretching is vital to performance and muscle health, others conclude that more dynamic warmups benefit a good run over stretching.
Taking a look at how muscles work together, what stretching really does for the body, and when it is best performed, this quick guide can help answer some of your most pressing stretching questions:
To Stretch or Not To Stretch
Physiology of Stretching
Did you know that all of your skeletal muscles, the muscles connected to your skeleton which help you move, are composed of hundreds of thousands of multinucleated cells called fibers? You’ll recall seeing anatomy posters in school with striations of blue, red, and pink muscles overlaying the skeletal structure of a human body. These fibers are composed of myofibrils, large protein molecules responsible for muscle contraction.
Skeletal muscles respond rapidly to stimuli and therefore can fatigue easily. The body is engineered with muscle groups always working in tandem, to both power your movements as well as to prevent injury. For example, when you stretch your arm up over your head, instead of the muscle adjusting to this new length and just staying up there, it contracts back to return your limb to its original position and to avoid straining and tearing. This reflex to contract is called the myotatic reflex (and it’s why you’re leg bounces when the doctors taps your knee with the little rubber hammer).
In response to this reflex is reciprocal inhibition which cues the muscle opposite (antagonist) to the one you are stretching (agonist or prime mover) to relax. If a stretch is held long enough, autogenic inhibition in turn tells the muscle you are stretching to relax and lengthen, overriding the reflex to contract.
Why Is Stretching Important?
Simply put, stiff, tight muscles, tendons and ligaments are more likely to strain, tear, and become injured with high impact activity like running. Stretching elongates muscles, making them more limber and elastic, and even over time, induces long term plasticity, or a malleability of the muscles to structurally adapt for the better. Reduced flexibility can actually shorten muscles, while being limber can improve both running form and muscle strength.
When Is The Best Time to Stretch?
Stretching muscles when they are warm and pliable is most effective. Post-run or after your warmup, muscles and joints will have loosened making them more flexible and elastic for stretching. A dynamic warmup of brisk walking, jumping jacks, or burpees, for example, is a far better way to boost blood circulation prior to a run than quick, jolting static stretching.
A held stretch has the most benefit for your muscle elasticity too. Instead of bending over to touch your toes and bouncing for a few seconds, try gently bending and holding the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. This signals your body to override the reflex to contract and helps the muscle relax into the pull and draw of the stretching movement.
What Stretches Are Good for Runners?
When looking for the best stretches to power your running performance and endurance, focus on the muscle groups engaged in running. Here are five top stretches to start:
- Focus on hamstrings with a simple hand to toe stretch. Sit on the ground with one leg fully extended out and the other brought up to rest your foot flat on your inner thigh. Gently reach to touch your toe, keeping your spine straight not hunched, and hold for 30 seconds.
- Prioritize limber quadriceps with a simple standing stretch. Feet flat on the ground, lift one leg up behind you and grab your ankle with the corresponding hand. Keep your knee pointed towards the ground, spine straight, and pull on your leg, slightly tucking your pelvis and shin towards your thigh.
- Try a downward facing dog yoga pose to stretch calf muscles. Starting on your hands and knees, tuck your toes under and extend your arms fully out in front of your on the ground, spreading your palms. Slowing walk your legs back, straightening out your knees and forming a triangle with the ground. Press your heels towards the ground as much as you can without hurting them, keep your spine straight and head in between your shoulders, don’t let it hang.
- Dealing with plantar fascia pain or overlapping toes? Foot strengthening exercises and stretches can help here too. Toss small game pieces, dice, or marbles on the ground, Using one foot at time, pick up the pieces with your toes and place them in a designated area or bin.
- Tackle gluteal muscles with a stretch on your back. Lying down, bring your left leg up so your knee is bent and foot flat to the ground. Take your right leg and bring it over your left knee, then grab behind your left knee and bring both legs up to your chest. Switch to stretch the other side after 30 seconds.
For some, incorrect form with stretching alone can actually lead to injury, so being smart about flexibility is key. Never stretch through pain, always customize a stretching plan with a doctor or sports medicine specialist after an injury, and remember to warm muscles up before a good stretch – your body will thank you!
By Joe Flemming from ViveHealth