The Long and the Short of It: A Runner’s Stretching Guide

Running for recreation and sport has gained popularity in the United States over the past several years. Most of us know someone who has participated in a running event, whether it is a community race for fun and charity or a large scale marathon. We know the importance of training for these events in order increase endurance and strength to avoid injury. Stretching is also a necessary component to exercise for injury prevention. Controversy remains in the athletic and rehabilitation field regarding the effectiveness of pre-event versus post-event stretching, or the need for both. Some studies show that gentle warm-up exercises or stretching can be effective in preparing the muscles for an athletic event. Post-event stretching can help to lengthen tight tissues. Despite the debate of pre-event versus post-event stretching, we know that strong flexible muscles are less prone to injury. Many runners are unsure or misinformed about the type of stretches to perform. Questions often arise regarding the appropriate manner in which the stretch should be carried out, such as the intensity, duration, and the number of repetitions that should be completed.

Many of us remember stretching as it was taught to us during gym classes in school, or learned by example during athletic activities. The way we learned to stretch is not always the most effective or appropriate for the exercise routines we find ourselves in currently. Also, the rationale for the way a stretch is performed has changed over the years as research sheds new light on the physiology of muscles and the nervous system. Here are some basic guidelines for stretching.

• Remember that old saying “no pain, no gain”? Well, when it comes to stretching, and just about anything else we do, that statement is wrong. A stretch should not be painful. Pain will send signals to your nervous system telling it the muscle is in danger. Since muscle is soft tissue and can tear, the nervous system will subtly tighten the muscle tissue to avoid injury. Stretch sensation can be strong but should never involve pain. If it does, back out of the stretch slightly to allow the nervous system to remain calm and the tissues to lengthen.

• I was taught to gently bounce at the end of a stretch to give it that extra ‘umph’. This too is wrong. Bouncing when we reach the end of our stretch triggers receptors in our muscles and tendons and again, sends messages to our friend, the nervous system, which perceives that end-range bounce as a good reason to tighten the muscle tissue to keep it from tearing. Instead of bouncing, just stay steady at the end of a strong stretch, without pain. I call it “camping out”.

• If you have time for your exercise routine, you should make time for stretches. Most people do not hold their stretches long enough. Research shows that a stretch should be held at pain free end range, without bouncing, for 20-30 seconds (that’s 1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi . . .). I prefer 30 second holds. Why so long? If you relax into your stretch and pay attention to the sensation of the muscle, after approximately 20 seconds you may feel a subtle relaxing and further lengthening of the tissue. Yes, the nervous system again. Work with it, not against it.

• Finally, let’s talk about the repetitions. Try 2-3 repetitions for each type of stretch. You may be surprised how that second or third rep can make a difference in your flexibility.

Now that you have a better understanding of how to stretch we can look at some basic stretches for runners. Think of the muscles you are using and this will help you figure out what to stretch. Tailor your stretches to the areas of your body that are tight. There are many stretching books available. One of my favorites is called Stretching by Bob Anderson. The stretches in this book are broken down into specific muscle groups and sporting events. In the drawings of the stretches the area where you should feel the stretch is shaded. Let’s look at some of the muscles used when running.

• There are four strong Quadricep muscles on the front of your thigh which extend your knee.

• The three muscles on the back of your thigh are the hamstrings and the most commonly strained muscle. They work to slow the extension of your knee when walking or running so that the knee does not over extend.

• The calf muscles act to push you forward as your heel and toe leave the ground. The following links show stretches for these muscles being performed, which can be much more helpful than just a description.

Stretching Tips for Runners

• The Iliotibial band or IT Band is a dense tendon that runs the length of the outside of the leg from the hip to just below the knee. This band can become very tight, especially in runners. Tension of the IT band can put undue stress on the knee joint and create a number of problems. Keeping this tendinous band flexible is very important for runners.
This link demonstrates an effective way to mobilize and loosen the IT Band using a foam roller.

• Finally, this link demonstrates a great stretch for the piriformis muscle in the back of the hip and also for the IT Band. The piriformis muscle is another muscle that can become very tight with running. The sciatic nerve dives down behind or sometimes through this muscle as it descends into the leg, so keeping a nice length in this muscle is a good idea.

These links are meant to act as a guide for you. As you viewed them you likely encountered other stretches that seemed right for you. Even with the very best of self care any of us can experience an injury. If you have an injury, or if you continue to experience a recurring injury, you physical therapist may be able to help you. Physical therapists are experts in movement and specialists in rehabilitative care. In addition to helping you through an injury a physical therapist can help design a stretch and exercise program specific to you so you can remain health and stay on track.

-Liz Stephenson, PT

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