Five Fantastic Stretches for Runners
Scott Stiffey, D.C.
Warm Up and Cool Down: Stretching is important during your warm-up, before you run, because it increases blood flow to the muscles. But stretching during your cool-down may be even more important. “After running, stretching helps to remove lactic acid from the muscle, which in turn reduces muscle soreness,” says Stiffey. “That promotes better flexibility.” Stretching afterwards also will help you relax.
Don’t Overstretch: While stretching can promote flexibility, stretching too far actually can damage the muscles—particularly if you’re recovering form an injury. “A healthy muscle can elongate up to 1.6 times its length,” suggests Stiffey, “but generally doesn’t respond well to that much stretching.” By overstretching, you create an automatic reflex that actually will cause the muscle to recoil to protect itself from tearing and injury. Also, don’t bounce while stretching. Holding your stretch in a static position works best.
Use MICE Rather Than RICE: Health professionals frequently promote RICE as one way of treating an injury: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. But Stiffey promotes MICE. “Move it,” he says. This is because immobilizing a muscle can lead to decreased blood flow and muscle atrophy. If you stretch properly while recovering from an injury, you can speed that recovery.
Resist Aging: Stiffey believes it a myth that aging is the only factor that causes us to lose flexibility. “It’s lack of exercise,” he says. “Studies show that a sedentary lifestyle is a bigger factor in decreasing flexibility than aging.” If you stay active aerobically and use stretching to maintain your flexibility, you will look and feel younger because of the way you move.
Finally, the key to the exercises presented below is to maintain good form. Don’t look sloppy stretching. Stiffey’s five fantastic stretching exercises follow.
Hold each stretch for 10 seconds, repeating 10 times.
1. Quadriceps Stretch: The quadriceps is the muscle in the front of the thigh, important for lifting your knees and increasing your speed. It is the “quads” that often go at the end of marathons, causing runners to come shuffling across the finish line because they have a hard time lifting their feet off the ground. To do this exercise while standing, simply grab hold of a stationary object for balance with one hand and use the opposite hand to grasp the leg around the ankle, lifting it toward your buttocks. Stiffey points out several form faults: “You want to keep your back straight and not allow the knee to drift forward ahead of the stance leg. A lot of runners slouch forward, which effectively negates the stretch’s effectiveness.”
An even more effective way to do this exercise, however, is lying on a bench, using a towel wrapped around the ankle to pull your foot toward your buttocks. You should position yourself on the edge of the bench with the foot of your dangling leg forward, knee bent, leg relaxed. As with the other stretching exercises, hold each stretch for 10 seconds and repeat as many as 10 times for each leg.
Quadriceps Stretch Positions
2. Hamstring Stretch: Most runners do this exercise by putting their foot on a waist-high stationary object (or a hurdle if at the track) and slowly leaning forward, reaching down the shin until they feel a stretch in the hamstring. The hamstring is the muscle that runs from just below the knee up into the buttocks. It’s the muscle that lifts the lower leg and bends the knee after the quads have lifted your knees. Sprinters pull this muscle more than distance runners, but as I discovered, even straining your hamstring can limit your ability to run fast.
The best way to do this exercise, however, is not with your foot on a stool, but rather while lying on your back. Lie on your back, keeping the back flat and your eyes focused upward. Grasp the back of one thigh with both your hands and (leg bent) pull that thigh into a 90-degree position vs. the floor. Then slowly straighten your knee. After you’ve gotten used to doing this exercise, you can achieve a better stretch by pulling your thigh closer to your chest—but don’t overdo it!
Hamstring Stretch Postions
3. Piriformis Stretch: Lying on your back, cross your legs just as you might while sitting in a chair. Grasping the “under” leg with both hands, pull the knee toward your chest until you feel the stretch in your buttocks and hips.
Piriformis Stretch Position
4. Gastroc Stretch: This push-off exercise is the one you most often see runners doing before races. Typically, they lean against a wall to stretch the calf muscles—but they don’t always do it right, claims Stiffey. The gastroc muscle, along with the soleus, is located in the back of the calf. It is the calf muscle that actually propels your leg across your grounded foot while running. Lean against a wall or other stationary object, both palms against the object. The leg you want to stretch is back, several feet from the wall, your heel firmly positioned on the floor. Your other leg is flexed about halfway between your back leg and the wall. Start with your back straight and gradually lunge forward until you feel the stretch in your calf. “It is important to keep your back foot straight and angled 90 degrees from the wall,” says Stiffey.
Gastroc Stretch Position
5. Soleus Stretch: “This is the stretch that most runners forget,” says Stiffey. “They stretch their gastroc muscles (as above) without realizing there’s a similar stretch for the soleus.” The soleus is the other major muscle in the calf, located in front of the gastroc. It is important for planting the foot on the ground before your push off. Position yourself similar to the gastroc stretch with back straight and palms against the wall. The difference is that you start in a “seated” position with your legs bent, your buttocks dropped. Gently lean into the wall until you feel the stretch in your lower calf.
Soleus Stretch Position
Stretching is important, not only because it will make you a better runner, less likely to get injured, but it can also help you to maintain flexibility to do all the other activities in your life.
If these stretches do not seem to help you condition please feel free to give my office a call for a Free Consultation to discuss any health concerns.