A topic that seems to confuse runners all over the land is how and when to stretch. Should you stretch before your run? After? For how long? It seems a bit of a minefield with all sorts of opposing information out there.
The first thing to understand is that there are loads of different types of stretching that should be used in different parts of your workout for optimum benefit. For the purposes of this simple guide, we’re going to look at two of them: static stretching and dynamic stretching.
What is a static stretch? A static stretch involves holding your muscle in a stretched position towards the end of your range of movement. Static stretches are usually held for 15-30 seconds, but can be used for longer to develop flexibility.
What is a dynamic stretch? Dynamic stretching involves moving your muscles in a controlled manner within your range of movement and gently increasing that range as you repeat the movement.
As a general rule, dynamic stretches and joint mobility exercises are best used as part of your warm up. Your warm up should include three components:
- Light activity to raise the heart rate and increase the blood flow to your muscle tissues (e.g. brisk walking, light jogging)
- Mobilising exercises to increase the volume of synovial fluid, which lubricates your joints (e.g. ankle rotations, hip rotations, dynamic knee lifts)
- Specific movement drills for your activity to facilitate relevant motor unit recruitment (e.g. heel kicks or walking calf raises)
Your dynamic stretches can double-up as both mobilising exercises and functional drills. Wide heel kicks, for example, are a great dynamic stretch for the quadriceps whilst also being a wake-up drill for the hamstrings.
Once your run is over, and you’ve cooled down enough for your heart rate to start lowering, that’s the time to use your static stretches. Your muscles will have contracted and shortened during your training session and your aim is to take the muscles back to pre-exercise length. If you skip the flexibility aspect of your cool down regularly, you’ll end up with shortened and tight muscles.
Static stretches are effective when they’re performed on warm, pliable muscles. That is the reason to use static stretches at the end of your run and not before. In fact, a study published in 2014 showed that using static stretching before a hard effort was not only ineffective, but actually detrimental to the initial power output of runners in a time trial. Put simply, you’ll feel sluggish when you start running.
For your static stretches, hold the stretch just at the point of mild discomfort for at least 15 seconds. If a particular muscle group is really tight, hold for 30-60 seconds to develop flexibility.
Remember, having a stretch isn’t just for cool downs. Adding a mobility and flexibility session into your weekly training schedule is great for active recovery. I’m launching a subscriber service for runners through my app which will include:
- Warm up routines
- Video guides and demonstrations of stretches
- Weekly flexibility/mobility sessions
- Weekly run-specific strength and conditioning workouts
- Running workouts to mix up your training
There’ll be a free 7 day trial on the app, sign up below to find out as soon as it’s available.
- TOLLISON, T. (2007) Static vs. Dynamic Flexibility [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni43a4.htm [Accessed 12/9/2017]
- DAMASCENO, M. et al (2014) Static Stretching Alters Neuromuscular Function and Pacing Strategy, but Not Performance during a 3-Km Running Time-Trial
- ABERNETHY, B. (2005) The Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement