Everyone has to stretch – it is not just for gymnasts, dancers and the flexibly determined among us. There are also many reasons to stretch, and even more methods of stretching; all, of which will aid your running prowess.
Why is stretching important?
Incidentally, we are led to believe that stretching your muscles, is just to gain flexibility. You’re mechanically isolating muscles and increasing their length. However, there is so much more to benefit from stretching them simply by being able to touch your toes…
Both physically and mentally. Physically, let’s say you are working at your desk all day, your neck and shoulders are hunched and closer to your ears than when you started the day. By stretching the neck/shoulder region, you are physically ‘switching off’ overactive, shortened muscles. Is the best feeling when they melt back to where they belong.
Mentally, it can slow down your busy mind, and invite a moment of peace from a stressful day. Many clients I have stretch at work during lunchtimes. Like a meditative exercise, giving you a 5-10 minute pause button. And what’s better? You haven’t got to build up a sweat or leave the lunchroom to benefit!
- Reduced muscle soreness
- Reducing the risk of injury
- Reduced menstrual pain
- Increased body awareness
- Preparing your body for strenuous exercise
Heading to the gym a lot? Ramped up your interval training or even mileage giving you sore muscles the next day? Taking some time to stretch those sore muscles does decrease pain levels, and gets you back pounding the pavement earlier than you thought you could.
A repetative motion like running will undoubtedly invite injuries. Most popular are muscle imbalances – one being too short and pulling on a joint; the opposite being too long and letting it. The most common example of this, in runners, is the Vastus media list oblique (inner quad muscle) being too short, pulling your patella (kneecap) towards the inner thigh. The Vastus lateralis (the outer quad muscle) being too long, and too weak to prevent the moment, and so allows it. – No, your patella wont be visibly out of place, but that can bring very painful running injuries that can take months to recover.
A long, warm, soothing stretch session of the hips, lower back and legs can help ease pain and tension caused by menstruation. Perfect to add extra sessions throughout your cycle when you know you’ll need it most.
One thing I found with clients (and myself) is, you can never know your body well enough. Stretching will get you pair, a little closer. By taking time to stretch out your day, or training session, you are learning where your body is taking a hit, what’s working extra hard or, not enough. – You learn where you are tense, and where you need to improve. So be mindful when you’re stretching, it could be, your left calf is taking the hit from running around the track in one direction all the time, so change it up.
Stretching as part of a warm-up prepares your body for the training session you’re about to embark on. Just like you wouldn’t train on an empty stomach, you mustn’t train with cold muscles. Of course, static stretching isn’t ideal here, so make sure your stretching style or technique matches what goal you are trying to achieve (Warming up, cooling down, recovery or stress reliving for example)
However, even if you take the time to stretch before and after each session, you could be doing it wrong and hindering your training rather than helping it. Some of the common mistakes?
- Inefficient warm-up
- Not enough rest between training sessions or workouts
- Poor stretch form
- Using the wrong stretching technique for your goal
When do I need to stretch?
I know you will want a definite answer, and while there are some guidance – pre-workout, post-workout for example. Ultimately, your muscles just need to be warm before you ever consider stretching. NO, stretching is NOT a warmup! Conduct yourself a brief 5-minute cardio-based activity (walking, ver slow jog, easy cycle or row) and then once your body temperature has raised, you can start stretching (please use common sense here, if the weather is bitter cold, either warm up inside or take extra time to warm up before your workout).
Sometimes I use the first mile to warm up, especially if it’s a long run session. I stop to stretch a mile in then it’s a go-go. Plus, I challenge myself to find different places to stretch each time I go out, its more fun that way?
If you’re not training today, you might be wondering when to stretch (if at all). The answer is always yes! 10 minutes of stretching is 100% better than none, so get to it. Morning, noon or night? Well, that will depend on you, your schedule, and your circadian rhythm. (You know, whether you’re a morning person or evening night owl) Your circadian rhythm will determine when you should stretch (and when you prefer to train, workout, run even hit the gym). For example, for me it’s about 2-4 pm window where I like to run in the middle of work, just after I’ve let my lunch go down. Who can get themselves to the gym for a 6 am workout? You people are something else! So, What about you? Have you noticed a pattern? Are you a gym at 6 am before work, kinda athlete, or after work to destress from the day?
Should stretching be painful?
In a nutshell, no. Stretching should not be painful. If you are experiencing pain or discomfort then I suggest easing off the stretch – making it less intense. Perhaps it’s an overworked area, or that stretch technique isn’t working for you. There are many ways to stretch one muscle so keep finding new versions (for example, to stretch hamstrings, you can sit straight-legged on the floor, and reach for your toes. This particular stretch is too intense for me, so I opt to stand, one leg bent, the other strength and lean forwards that way). VIOLA! Same target, same outcome, different technique.
However, It’s important to find the root cause here, it could be an injury you ought to be aware of (remember the body awareness point? This would be it). So keep an eye, if you notice continued pain, any bruising or swelling around the very same area that hurts whilst on stretch, get it checked out.
Next, we head to unravel what each type of stretching is, when it’s used, how to perform them and how much really is, too much.