I am notorious for skipping my post-run stretch. More often than not, I am walking down my driveway after my run, thinking about the 9 million things I need to get done that day. Instead of taking the extra 5-10 minutes to stretch, I usually walk right into the house to get a glass of water and grab a quick post run snack, and then I'm off to the next thing on the to-do list. I know I should stretch, but when I'm crunched for time (which is pretty much always) stretching goes right out the window.
Why is stretching so important?
This has been a hotly debated topic in the world of running. Some say that stretching is imperative, others say it is harmful, while still others say that it may not make a difference either way. Honestly, with so many "experts" the debate on stretching can get a little confusing. On top of it all, there are many different types of stretching. For the purpose of this article, I am referring to "static" stretching, the type of stretching where the stretch is held in a challenging position for 15-30 seconds. Here are some stretching facts:
- Static stretching can help increase range of motion and flexibility in joints
- Static stretching can help maintain proper body alignment by decreasing muscular-skeletal imbalances
- Static stretching helps restore blood flow to the muscles
- Static stretching can be harmful prior to a workout when the muscles are "cold" as this may lead to muscle strains and decreased performance
So now that we know what stretching can and can't do, we can look at why some people say that stretching is harmful. It is true that stretching before any type of physical activity can be harmful. Before the muscles have a chance to warm up, stretching can cause the muscles to strain or tear, because cold muscles are tight muscles. After your run your muscles are more pliable, and therefore able to be lightly stretched without the fear of damage.
Some people also claim that runners shouldn't need to stretch after running because it hasn't been proven to prevent injury. This claim is a bit difficult to stand by. There are so many factors that go into injuries, and the fact that some people who stretch still get injured does not mean that stretching never prevents injuries. It is well known that tight muscles can limit range of motion, which is turn alters body mechanics. Altered body mechanics can lead to injury. So how do we loosen up those tight muscles? Stretch!
Proper ways to stretch
Static stretching should be done after a workout, when your muscles are warm. Ease into the stretch and stop when you start to feel slight discomfort. Stretching should not be excrutiatingly painful. Stretching beyond the point of slight discomfort greatly increases the chance of injury in muscle tears and strains. Hold the stretch at this point for 15-30 seconds. Do not bounce in and out of the stretch, but rather hold the stretch in one fixed position. Aim to hit the hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves, back and shoulders.