The subject of stretching is probably one of the most debated within the running community. Stretching “will prevent injury and increase running performance”. We would like to think so but unfortunately there is a lack of hard and fast scientific evidence to support these views especially relating to prevention of injury. So should runners just forget about stretching and hope for the best? Certainly one view but maybe consider the following.
It is generally accepted that as runners it is important to develop flexibility. Flexibility can be defined as the ability to perform joint actions through a wide range of movement. The natural range of movement of each joint in the body is very individual taking into account the arrangement of tendons, ligaments, connective tissue and muscles. The limit to a joint’s range of movement is known as the end point.
Typically injuries can occur when a muscle or limb is forced beyond its normal limits i.e. beyond the end point. So by increasing a joint’s end point it may help runners. Restricted flexibility can lead to poor technique and hence performance. This is because muscles may have to work harder to overcome the resistance for an efficient stride length.
Runners should consider maintaining or increasing basic flexibility in 3 simple stages:
- During a warm up routine prior to exercise or a training session
- In a warm down, post exercise
- In static stretching post cool down/warm down
Some guidelines to consider in the various stages of maintaining/increasing basic flexibility:
- Activity 1: Jog and gradually increase pace to running.
Purpose: To increase the heart rate, blood circulation and warmth in the body.
- Activity 2: Series of dynamic mobilisation exercises focussed on the main muscle groups being used in the main session. These should be under the supervision of your coach and can include: high knees, butt kicks, walking lunges, side steps, skipping etc. as well as upper body exercises.
Purpose: Prepare mind and body for the session ahead, activating the main muscle groups being used during the planned session.
Cool Down/Warm Down
- Activity: Gentle aerobic activity (e.g. slow running)
Purpose: To reduce heart rate, reduce body temperature and prepare the mind for relaxation.
- Activity: Stretching (where the runner controls the movement). The exercises are done in the end position as a static exercise. A typical session for the lower body muscles would include stretches for: soleus/lower calf, calf, hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quadriceps as a minimum.
Purpose: Stretch for 10-15 seconds to regain any range of movement lost during the session. Increase the duration to 30 seconds to extend the range of movement.
It should be noted that often for practical purposes runners compromise their stretching by performing most of the exercises in a standing position. Many experts in this field suggest sitting or lying down is the preferred position for stretching. This works well in a gym or on a track during the summer but not practical outdoors during the autumn and winter months.
To significantly increase flexibility it would be necessary to engage in a separate long term programme under expert tuition and supervision. Many of these programmes will include passive stretching whereby the athlete goes into the end position and a partner (often an instructor) progressively applies pressure. The athlete can concentrate on relaxing the muscles being stretched. This type of stretching can produce major improvements in the range of movement providing the person involved in controlling the stretching is skilled.