Stretching is an important part to any running program. Studies have shown numerous positive benefits to stretching such as increased flexibility, mobility and decreased injuries. Stretching should be specific to each and every individual. A stretching routine should take into your sport, age and previous injury history. Stretches that may be good for one individual may not be as beneficial for another. It is also important to think about how you are doing the stretch. If stretching recreates pain you are currently feeling from an injury, it is not a good thing. While stretching there should be a feeling of a “stretch” or releasing of tension in an area. Stretches should be done frequently enough to achieve a desired goal. If something is tight and needs to be lengthening, stretching needs to be done regularly. This can be as much as once to twice an hour, or as little as three times a day.
A common question I get is, “Should I stretch before or after activity?” Unfortunately there is no easy answer. There is variable research to support stretching in both cases. Instead read your body’s response to your routine. If you start stretching before running and you see positive results, then continue. If you are doing something wrong one of two things will happen, you will experience pain or your performance will begin to decrease.
There are also poor quality stretches out there. Position and movement is important, and without knowledge of both runners can cause injury by stretches incorrectly. My first suggestion is perform your routine then wait two days before doing it again. The body needs time to process prior activities. If you start your routine and do not allow time for processing the likelihood of being injured is higher. Secondly, try and massage the muscle you would like to stretch. Whether you get a massage or work on yourself at home this is a great way of preparing your tissue to be stretched, think of it as a mini warm-up. My last suggestion is simple, if it hurts don’t do it!
Below I have suggested five stretches that I think are most important in preparing for race day. Be sure to hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds and a maximum of one minute. Perform each stretch 3-5 times throughout the course of the day. If you have any pre-existing injuries, be sure to consult a health care professional prior to starting a stretching routine.
1. Rear Leg Stretch – Elevate one leg on a step one foot in height. Bend your knee 30 degrees then bring your toes up towards your head. Begin to lean forward at the hips (not the back) to feel the stretch in the upper back part of the leg. If you feel excessive stretching in the low back or numbness in the knee or hip, this stretch is not for you.
2. Shoulder – While on your knees place one hand around the leg of a chair with the thumb facing upward. Lean your hips back to sit towards the floor. You should feel the stretch on the outside of the armpit and side of the holding arm. If you feel a pinch in the top of the shoulder this stretch is not for you.
3. 90/90 Stretch – Sitting on the floor place one leg in front of you, with the hip and knee flexed at 90 degrees. At the same extend the other leg back behind you with the knee flexed to 90 degrees. Staying tall through the back lean the chest forward over the knee feeling a stretch in the hip of the leg that is forward. If you feel a pinch in the groin this stretch is not for you.
4. Front Leg Stretch – Start in a relaxed lunge position in front of a stair. Place the foot of the rear leg on the stair. Staying tall through the trunk, squeeze the back hip muscle, which will help to feel a stretch in the front of the rear leg. For a more intense stretch you can elevate the foot on something higher like a chair. If you have pain in the low back or knee cap during this stretch is it not for you.
5. Chest Stretch – Although you are running it is important to stretch your chest. Flexibility in the chest helps with neck pain and breathing. Place you forearm in a door frame so your shoulder and elbow are flexed to 90 degrees. Staying straight through upper back and neck, lean into the shoulder feeling a stretch in the chest. If you have pain in the front of the shoulder this stretch is not for you.
Conor Collins is a Sports Injury Therapist and Active Release Therapy provider at the Foot Knee Back Clinic in Ancaster, Ontario. For more information visit www.conorpcollins.com or call 905-304-6556.