When I was young, I stretched because my coaches told me to stretch. I have never been that flexible, but I never really understood the benefits. Here are the things that we are typically told about stretching:
- Stretching prior to any type of exercise gets the muscles ready for the more intense exercise that follows.
- A well-stretched muscle moves through a full range of motion with less effort. Therefore, stretching prior to physical activity will help you conserve energy and thereby improve performance.
- Because our muscles get cold and tight from hours of sitting or standing at our jobs, periodic stretching will keep the blood flowing and allow the muscles to move through a full range of motion.
- A muscle is more flexible when it is warm and stretched, and it is less likely to tear or overstretch from an abrupt movement.
- Stretching increases the blood supply to the muscles and joints. This keeps the muscles supple and healthy.
- After a workout, stretching your muscles will keep them from immediately shortening and tightening as they cool down.
In high school, I ran both cross country and track. My cross country coach had us stretch before running and encouraged stretching after the workout. Our head track coach, however, made us run a mile first and then stretch. Both seem like pretty good ideas, but which is right? I have great respect for both of those coaches, so I am going to say that I agree with both coaches MOST of the time.
Right now, however, I am suffering a round of tight muscles in my calves. Over the past few weeks, when I stretched BEFORE the run it felt very artificial. My muscles would not stretch unless I forced them. Bad idea! They just would not budge until I pushed to the point of pain… and the led to more pain and more tightness. In short, stretching a muscle that will not cooperate is a bad idea.
Does that mean that I should run without stretching? I tried. Bad idea. It just forced the muscle to stretch under duress, just like stretching before the run. That led to worse pain and increased tightness.
How do you stretch a muscle that is firmly against the idea? Stretching first is bad and stretching after a mile is bad… where do you go from there?
The Technical Truth about Stretching
An extensive meta-analysis of the research on stretching reaches two unavoidable truths:
- Static stretching, the old method of stretching and holding a stretch before your run, can reduce your power by as much as 5.5%.
- Dynamic stretching through gentle movement and gradually attaining your full range of motion is much safer and more productive.
You can find a lot of dynamic stretching ideas out on the web, but here is what is working for me:
- Warm up the sore & tight muscles by slowly and carefully moving through their comfortable range first. Not by running, but just gently going through your comfortable range of motion.
- After the muscles begin to warm up, the comfortable range of motion will begin to gradually increase.
- Take that warm-up/stretch combination as far as your muscles will comfortably allow in a few minutes.
- Begin to run at an easy pace and gradually increase your speed.
- Stop to do a little more dynamic stretching if you feel the need.
This may not be new to you, but I was never told to warm up the muscle and stretch simultaneously. I suppose you could say that I am employing a combination of the advice of both of my high school head coaches. It just goes to show that the lesson that you teach to youth may be lost on them in the moment, but they can keep learning from that advice years later.
I continue to have some tension in those muscles, but it gets better every day. When my muscles rebel, I placate them with my new process of warm-up & stretching.
If you have been struggling with a tight muscle and just can’t find the right process to loosen it up, you might give it a try.
Be careful. Don’t overstretch.
The other item to add is about devices for stretching. Here are the two products that I use to aid in the stretching process, not before a run but hours before or after. They are both designed to work out knots in your muscles by rolling – like rolling out dough with a rolling pin. You lay on the foam roller and use your body weight to apply pressure. A lot of runners have found relief. I most recently rescued my knees by using the foam roller.
The Stick, on the other hand, has handles and you press down to apply pressure. I found this tool especially wonderful for my calves. Oh, yes!
I hope these work for you as well as they have worked for me.
“Train smart, eat well, & enjoy the run!” — P. Mark Taylor
Check out these books by P. Mark Taylor for more advice on running: