Stretching can be an important part of your fitness arsenal. It can help relieve muscle tension, keep muscles flexible, improve posture/balance, flush lactic acid from muscles and help prevent injury by relaxing and lengthening muscles.
But that’s only if you do it right!
If you’ve ever been to a race, odds are good that you’ve seen people sitting on the ground stretching before the start. Maybe you are even one of those people! But stretching cold muscles could result in strains and tears; causing more pain and possibly require an extended break from your fitness routine.
Stretching before a run or walk is an oft debated topic. Some people insist you need it, some insist it is a waste of time. If you do prefer to stretch, a 5-10 minute warm-up prior to stretching will help loosen things up and start to heat the muscles so they are more susceptible to stretching benefits. If you do not wish to stretch before the run, it is still good practice to get in some brisk walking or slow jogging before you jump into your run. Warming up is a good habit for all.
Any stretching done before a run or walk should be DYNAMIC stretching; meaning you are in motion as opposed to holding a STATIC stretch. Here are a few dynamic stretching moves recommended by Runner’s World that can be done pre-run:
- LEG LIFTS
Swing one leg out to the side, then swing it back across your body in front of your other leg. Repeat 10 times on each side. Feel wobbly? Hold onto a steady object.
While standing tall, walk forward with an exaggerated backswing so that your heels come up to your glutes. When this is easy, try it while jogging. Do 10 reps on each side.
- WALKING LUNGES
Step forward using a long stride, keeping the front knee over or just behind your toes. Lower your body by dropping your back knee toward the ground. Maintain an upright posture and keep your abdominal muscles tight.
What isn’t as debated are the benefits that come from stretching after activity. However you do not need to stretch IMMEDIATELY upon finishing your exercise. That could actually cause muscles to constrict and feel tight; your muscles are used to running now and need a little bit of a transition time to recognize that they are not moving as intensely before you jump into stretching. Feel free to wait 30-40 minutes after running before doing some gentle stretches. (Use this time to get a balanced snack!)
When stretching, there are a few things to remember: Don’t bounce, don’t force a stretch and don’t hold your breath. In fact, it often helps to focus and breathe into your stretch (think yoga!). Lastly, stretching isn’t a competition… it doesn’t matter what contortions your friends can get themselves into. You only need to do what feels good and right for you as an individual. We’re all different so what works for your neighbor may not be the answer for you. Try different things, focus on proper form and learn what works best for you!
This is an article I wrote for the April 2010 Fleet Feet Sports of Las Vegas newsletter. A lot of my Team Challenge runners have questions about stretching. Due to the interest in this topic, I thought I would share it here as well.