Stretching should be an integral part of any runner’s routine. Whether you are just trying to keep fit or you have your eyes on an Olympic medal, stretching is great both after the warm-up and after the run.
There are a few precautions to keep in mind:
* You should never stretch cold muscles (before warming-up or running);
* Start with light stretches and gradually increase intensity;
* The ideal duration of each stretch is 10-20 seconds after warm-up and 20-30 seconds after the run.
Why is stretching so good for you? If you practice them after the warm-up, stretches prepare your muscles for the more serious effort of running, by improving blood flow and encouraging the muscles’ flexibility and resilience to effort. After the run, stretching helps the muscles relax and unwind, making the transition from running to walking, avoiding the occurrence of muscle cramps and dead leg.
So, what are the most effective types of stretching exercises which you should include in your daily training routine? Physiotherapists and coaches recommend these four types of stretches:
1. The Hamstring Stretch
Hamstrings are subject to intense effort during a run and many runners suffer from hamstring strain at one point in their lives. Hamstring strain causes pain and discomfort in walking, prevents you from continuing your regular running routine, and takes a few weeks to recover.
Regular hamstring stretches prevent the occurrence of this condition. To practise this type of stretch, you need to lie down with your legs side by side. Lift up one knee and then stretch the leg upwards in the air, supporting it with the corresponding hand. To avoid muscle strain, bend your knee if you start to feel it. Hold the position for 10-30 seconds and repeat with the other leg. Start with 5 stretches per leg and progress smoothly to 10.
2. The Quads Stretch
The quadriceps is the group of muscles running along the front and sides of your upper leg. They are the key to giving you momentum when your foot presses down on the ground to give you the forward bounce in running.
The quad stretch is performed standing up. Bend back your leg, grab the ankle with your hand and pull gently, keeping your knee pointing downwards. This prevents injury to the ligaments surrounding your kneecap. If you do not feel confident standing on one foot, use a chair for support. Hold the position for 10-20 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
3. The Lower Calf Stretch
Calves are also highly strained during running. To keep them flexible and strong enough to sustain effort without cramping, you should perform specific stretching on a daily basis.
The lower calf stretch is very easy to perform. Standing in front of a wall, with your hands placed
on the wall for support, bend one knee forward, without lifting the sole from the floor. You will feel the stretching of the muscles in the back of your lower leg. Hold the position for 20-30 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
4. The Hip Flexor Stretch
Your hip muscles should be in prime condition for running. They create the motion impulse for the rest of your leg and keep the balance between the upper and lower halves of your body, ensuring an accurate gait and posture.
The hip flexor stretch is performed by bending one leg forward, while stretching the other to the back until you feel the strain in your hips muscles. Hold the position for 30 seconds and repeat with the other leg forward. To add more pressure and build resistance, place your hands on the bent leg, and try to stretch the other leg until your legs are open in a splits position.
These four basic stretches should become a part of your daily warming-up and cooling-down routines. They will help you maintain flexibility in your muscles, and train them to sustain effort and help you improve your running performance.