Your sports teacher, personal trainer, physio and probably even your mum have told you that you need to stretch; but let's be honest, how often do you skip it and launch straight into a run?
If this is you, don't beat yourself up. Melbourne-based sports physiotherapist and director of PhysioTrain, Andrew Hoare, says stretching is a hotly debated topic.
"There's a lot of conjecture as to whether or not stretching prevents injury and benefits running," says Hoare. "Many studies suggest that stretching as most people think of it – holding a mildly uncomfortable position for at least 30 seconds – is actually detrimental to performance for some sports."
Static versus dynamic stretching
The most common form of stretching, and the type that gets the most criticism, is known as static stretching and examples include a seated forward bend or standing calf stretch. Hoare says, "From my experience, runners don't get much benefit from performing static stretches like toe touches before a run."
The alternative is dynamic stretching, which comprises controlled movements, such as leg and arm swings or high knee lifts, which slowly bring the muscles close to their range of motion limit without exceeding it.
Think of it not so much as stretching, but as warming up.Andrew Hoare
Quite a stretch
The case for stretching as a means for injury prevention comes from the long-held theory that a muscle that's been lengthened by stretching is more supple, decreasing stress to surrounding tendons, ligaments and muscles, and protecting them from the repeated stresses of activity. Yet research detailed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that there wasn't any evidence to suggest that static stretching was effective in preventing lower limb injuries in joggers. Furthermore, research from the University of Tampa found that pre-run stretching caused an eight per cent drop in performance in a one-mile uphill run.
Prepare your body
Hoare says despite evidence suggesting that stretching could be overrated, runners still need to spend time preparing their body for the rigours of running – and dynamic exercises are the way to go.
"If you want to get your body ready to run, prevent injury and boost your performance, then think of it not so much as stretching, but as warming up," says Hoare.
"You need to transition your body from lying in bed for eight hours or sitting for 10 hours to running.
"Runners should perform dynamic exercises that activate the muscles they need to use when running, get the joints moving through their required range of motion and increase body temperature."
If you have a tight hamstring or calf, Hoare says the time to try and change that is not the five minutes before you start jogging.
"Ideally you want to get your muscles, ligaments and tendons ready to run, but if there's a part of your body that's stiff, then this is something you will need to work on over time. That's when performing traditional static stretches after running will be more effective, as well as stretching on your rest days."
Pre-run dynamic exercises
Even if you're running late for your group run or you're pinched for time, Hoare recommends spending a few minutes warming up the hip flexors, hamstrings, lower back, glutes and groin muscles with the following dynamic exercises. Remember to start slowly, focusing on form. Use small movements for the first few reps and increase the range of motion as you go.
1. Leg swings
A lot of runners have poor hip mobility, especially those that sit for long periods of time for work. Front and back leg swings are a great way to get the hip-flexors and hamstrings moving, while across-body leg swings stretch out the muscles in the groin and glutes.
Support yourself on a wall or a post with one hand and face straight ahead. Swing one leg forward and back or side to side like a pendulum, keeping your posture tall and your core engaged. Try not to swing your leg aggressively at first; instead, lightly start to swing it and gradually increase your range of motion. As you get blood flow to the muscles, you will feel yourself loosen up. Do 20 swings for each leg.
2. 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. If you find walking lunges difficult, do 20 squats instead.
3. Walking high knees
Stand tall with arms at your side and feet shoulder-width apart. Take two long strides and on the third raise your left knee up toward your chest as high as you can. Step forward as you lower your leg back down. Repeat with the right knee, alternating back and forth while walking.
Post-run static stretches
The following static stretching exercises should form part of your cool-down program to increase flexibility and target muscles that are prone to tightness from running. Hoare says you should hold each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds. If you're having trouble holding the stretch for more than this, just repeat it a couple of times. To build flexibility over time you need to be spending up to 1-2 minutes on each stretch.
1. Hip-flexor stretch
Kneel on your right knee, with toes down, and place your left foot flat on the floor in front of you, knee bent and aligned with the ankle. Place hands on left thigh. Press hips forward until you feel tension in the front of your right thigh. Hold for at least 30 seconds, then switch sides.
2. Hamstring towel stretch
Loop a towel around your foot so that you are holding both ends of the towel. Slowly pull on the ends of the towel and use it to lift your leg into the air. Keep your knee straight. The leg without the towel should remain flat on the ground. Bring your leg up until a stretch is felt behind your thigh. You may also feel a stretch behind your lower leg in your calf, which is normal. Slowly release the stretch. If you don't have one handy, you can use a strap or even your belt.
3. Glute pretzel stretch
Lie on your back and bend both knees. Cross one leg over the other so your foot is on the opposite knee. Bring both knees towards your chest and gently pull the uncrossed leg towards you until you feel a stretch in your buttock.
Are you a fan of stretching, or cynical of the benefits? Let Laura know in the Comments section.
The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.
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