Stretching for beginning runners (and anyone that exercises)


I am a big proponent of stretching before you run,, and stretching after you run.  Having started running as I was turning 40, I found that my muscles were very tight, and that stretching generally helped as a warm up, a prelude to the use that my body was going to get.  Hopefully you read through all of the previous post, The Beginners Guide to Jogging and Running, where I talk a little bit about stretching; if you did you at least saw some very basic and preliminary resources on stretching before you run about two-thirds of the way through. If not, I’m going to expand on it anyway, and I will tell you that it has become somewhat controversial. I’m still a big proponent of stretching before and after – but first let’s have a discussion about the controversy, which I honestly think is quite misunderstood.

Let me just point out that stretching isn’t just for running – stretching is important before any physical activity you might choose to undertake, in my opinion.  I stretch before I golf, before I play badminton, before I ski, and before I run – it really doesn’t matter.  I would suggest you consider stretching no matter your chosen activity.

Is Stretching Really Necessary?

There is a great deal of research regarding stretching lately, including research indicating that stretching may not be necessary.  Of note is this article published in the New York Times, reporting on a study of Nebraska Wesleyan University’s distance running team.  In a nutshell, it found that the runners that had the tightest leg muscles may have actually performed the best, mostly due to their ability to be economical with their running movement.  I am not sure how comfortable that makes my legs and tight hamstrings feel, as there are many articles including professional trainers and bloggers from dailymuscle.com and Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong who advocate stretching before a workout, and Men’s Fitness Magazine who advocate stretching both before and after a workout.  In fact, if you search at Runners World Magazine or at Men’s Health Magazine, you will see that it’s a recurring topic.

If you wake up with a sore back, stretching really helps.  The same holds true with sore legs, feet, arms, whatever – if you have a sore muscle, stretch it out.  Stretching beforehand only works to warm you up and limber you up for the workout that is to come.  Most of the studies I’ve read have looked at pretty elite athletes – lets say those that regularly race 10K or more – and that just isn’t me.  I’m not worried about whether the stretches might slow me down, I’m wanting my hamstrings to feel good all through my run.

Also, whether it is a necessity or is good for you are two entirely different arguments.  I wouldn’t dare suggest that stretching isn’t good for you.  There is an industry based on stretching that itself is worth billions alone in clothing, instruction, and DVDs – yoga.  Yes, yoga is about so much more than stretching, but at it’s heart it is about breathing, balance, and stretching the tension out of the muscles in your body.  It’s about working through discomfort to achieve a feeling of peace.  Yoga is a centuries-old practice that is celebrated around the world, for good reason (I’m learning) and really does help with strength and flexibility.

All in all, I would recommend this: do what feels good for you, and what feels good for your muscles.  If you decide stretching isn’t right for you, then you’ve made that decision yourself.  I tend to work my quads and hamstrings in static stretches before a workout, and dynamic stretches of my legs and ankles after.  This is what has worked for me in over 3 years of running, and the only place I’ve ever had an injury is a part of my foot that I’ve never stretched!  In this case, your mileage may vary – but I”m a big proponent of stretching both before and after a run.

What, and how, to stretch

Generally, there are several considerations for stretching:

Before you run (or exercise)

Before you run, you need to figure out what parts of your body require stretching. This will not be the same for everyone – in fact, I would suggest that each person needs to go on a bit of an exploration as to what they really do need.  If you are a runner, I’m going to suggest some static stretches of your hamstrings – aside from that, everything else is up to you.   Here are some considerations:

  • You will be using your legs an incredible amount.  I would suggest that you ensure you stretch your hamstrings (the part along the back of your leg), along with other parts of your legs – I also stretch ankles, glutes (your butt), and your quads (thighs).
  • If you have issues in your lower back, especially due to weakness in your core, I would suggest gently stretching these out.  You will be holding yourself upright and really working out your core muscles, and strengthening those lower back muscles, so get them ready.
  • General stretching of the arms, shoulders, and neck is also a good idea, especially if you are stressed or tense and wish to start the disruption of that tension even before you run.
  • How long to hold static stretches?  Well, I find it easy to count to 20.

After you run (or exercise)

After you run, I feel it’s important to stretch things out again.  You are revved up, still energized, and warm.  Give yourself a leg up and start some dynamic stretches, which are also cool-down exercises.  I tend to focus again on my legs, but you may have other considerations.

  • Again I exercise my hamstrings, glutes (especially glutes here) and ankles by doing standing calf raises and toe dips, both of which will stretch your plantar fascia as well as the overall leg.
  • Your lower back still needs attention and you should stretch this out, especially if you have chronic or repeating back issues.  Be careful and don’t stretch too far considering the muscle is limber and warm, but stretch it out nonetheless.
  • Make sure you watch your breathing while stretching – it should gradually decrease in intensity, returning to near normal by the time you’ve completed your stretching routine.  If it hasn’t, you probably haven’t stretched long enough, or have rushed your stretching.
  • How many reps and sets?  I do 3 sets of 12 reps each for my dynamic stretching.  Do what feels comfortable for you!

Stretching resources

I listed a number of stretching resources in my previous post on starting a running program, and I’m going to reiterate them here.  I’m also going to recommend several books, most of which I have read as they specifically relate to stretching for runners.

Articles

Books

A huge plug for yoga

I’ve written recently about my surprise at enjoying yoga.  While I had previously derided it as the latest fad, especially here in the home of Lulu Lemon, I found it to be quite grounding, peaceful, and most of all a fantastic stretching regime.  So much so that I’ve recently found a yoga class specific to runners.  Admittedly this class is much more about strength, flexibility and range of motion through the legs and core than many other classes, and you spend a lot of time in strength poses – it is not an easy class – but the increased flexibility should be worth it.

Yoga is an ancient and well documented practice of stretching that has been developed over thousands of years to facilitate flexibility and meditation.  Hard though my current class is, and even though it is much more a stretching tool than anything else, I find it to be grounding just the same.  I encourage you to try a yoga class, even once a week, and see if it is for you – I think it’s certainly something I will continue to practice over the long-term.

Final thoughts

I find that stretching is beneficial to me, both before and after I run or work out in general.  It warms and limbers me up, it gets me ready and into a mindset of exercise, and it’s almost ritualistic in the way it gets me ready and warmed up to exercise. There is something comforting about going through a ritual before embarking on a long run, and it gets me mentally prepared as well as physically prepared.  After the run it’s a welcome part of my cool-down process, and helps me feel how each muscle group is doing.  Personally, I think stretching is beneficial, and so do most runners – your mileage may vary, but you won’t find me running without stretching anytime soon.

music note While writing this, I was listening to “Vertigo” by Sarah Slean

music note While writing this, I was listening to “Abigail” by Arkells

music note While writing this, I was listening to “He Lied About Death” by Stars

music note While writing this, I was listening to “Bones” by Radiohead

music note While writing this, I was listening to “All The Pretty Faces” by The Killers

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