Hi there and welcome back!
I created this post because I am always getting questions about stretching: Should I stretch? If so when? Is it better to stretch before or after workouts/runs? Which ones should I being doing? Should I stretch everyday? Which is better, static or dynamic stretching?… etc..etc..you get the picture.
In my experience I have found that stretching is always good and most people can definitely benefit from it. As regular human beings we tend to do the same movements over and over for long periods of time (sitting at a desk, driving, running, etc.) and our bodies need to be moved in all directions in order to balance ourselves out. (There is the exception of the dancers or gymnasts who can be hyper-flexible but that accounts for only a very small percentage of the population). For us regular folk, we can absolutely benefit from a regular stretching program.
My theory on how much and the timing of stretching really depends on the person. If you know you have some tightness/imbalances in your body then stretching before and after a workout or run is going to be good for you. However, if you have limited time for stretching, then I recommend incorporating a bit of dynamic stretches (moving while stretching and only holding the stretch for 1-2 seconds) into your warm-up and focus on a good static stretching (holding the stretch for 30s or longer) session at the end of your workout.
So now you are going to ask me about the static vs dynamic debate and I am going to give you the same answer I give everyone: it really depends on your body. I will give you an example: if one of your hamstring muscles is really tight and then you decide to go for a run without a proper warm-up or stretch, then you will be making that muscle work under “non-ideal conditions.” As you continue to run and possibly add a sprint at the end :\ your hamstring is trying so hard to keep up but it’s not working so well as it’s not at it’s optimal length so it fatigues and BAM – the dreaded hamstring strain (or pulled hammy)! For this person, a dynamic stretch of the hamstring before the run could have been enough to avoid this injury. However, everyone’s bodies are different and while that may work for some, others may need to do some static stretches to get their muscles to the “ideal” length before a run or workout.
If you are concerned about stretching the muscle too much before a run/workout because it may make it less powerful or decreases performance, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Like I said, 99% of my patients are usually tight in one or more muscles and would benefit greatly from stretching prior to exercise as it would actually bring the muscle closer to it’s optimal length, leading to a stronger, more powerful muscle which = increased performance.
Therefore, my rule of thumb is: it’s better to do some sort of stretch (either static or dynamic) before a workout as it is likely only going to improve your performance and prevent injury. It is also very important to stretch after a workout/run to return those muscles to their optimal length and I always recommend static stretching after exercising.
So on that note, here are my 5 top stretches for runners. These focus on the hips and legs as this is typically where I find the most tightness when working with running athletes. Each stretch should be held for 30 seconds -1 minute and can be done 2x on each side. If you are looking for exercises to help even out some imbalances, check out my post on the top 3 exercises you need to be doing!
*Never push through pain! If it hurts, stop stretching. Stretches should feel like a mild discomfort and they should never feel painful.
#1. The Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
This stretch is absolutely essential. The hip flexors are the link between your spine/pelvis and your femur (leg bone). They are what allow you to lift your leg repeatedly and are a pretty important muscle for runners! They do a lot of work for our bodies so you can imagine that they can get pretty tight. Not to mention those who have office jobs or commute to work – these muscles get shortened when you sit all day and then you make them go for a long run when you get home. So let’s start showing these muscles some love and give them a stretch.
Step 1 – Come into a kneeling lunge position and gently press your hips forwards until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip/thigh.
Step 2 – Raise the arm on the same side that is kneeling for an additional, deeper stretch.
#2. The “Figure 4” Stretch
This stretch isolates the glute muscles and is excellent for runners, cyclists and everyone really! These muscles get especially tight when you do regular linear activity (think moving forwards only and not side to side). Stretching them regularly is super important to help keep them strong and flexible long-term.
Step 1 – Lie on your back and bend both knees. Cross one leg over your bent knee and hold onto the back of the leg that is still planted on the floor, threading your hands through the space between the legs. Pull your leg towards your chest.
Step 2 – Using your elbow, gently press it into the crease of your bent knee to open your hip more and add to the intensity of the stretch. You should feel the stretch in the bum/leg that is crossed.
#3. The Hamstring Stretch
Again, the hamstrings are a very important muscle group for running and tend to be neglected since they are on the back side of the body. However, they need just as much love and care as any muscle on the front! These guys are a major powerhouse and they tend to tighten up with regular running/cardio type exercises. Here’s one way to give these muscles a nice stretch!
Step 1 – Lying on your back with both legs straight, bring one leg up to the ceiling. Grab onto the back of the leg (anywhere you can reach) and gently pull it towards you until you feel a stretch.
Step 2 – For an added stretch, use a rope or towel wrapped around the sole of the foot to help you bring the leg closer to your chest. Even try rotating your foot in different directions to get different fibres of the muscle.
#4. The Lying Quadriceps Stretch
The quadriceps function to straighten your knee and also aid the hip flexors in flexing the hip. These muscles tend to be overused as we rely on them more than we should (ie. getting in and out of a chair, going up stairs, etc.). They are important muscles but we need to remember that balance in the body is the most important thing. If every muscle performs its role, then we avoid relying on one muscle group all the time. Unfortunately, the quads end up being that ONE muscle group. So in order to help the quads perform their best, we need to make sure we are offloading them and stretching them regularly.
Step 1 – Lying on your side bring your top heel towards your bum and grab onto the front of your ankle (or use a strap if you can’t reach).
Step 2 – Press your hips forwards to feel more of a stretch in the front of your thigh.
#5. The Calf Stretch
The calf muscles are responsible for the “toe-off” part of the run and they are used a lot during that ballistic movement of running. As a result, you can imagine these muscles get pretty tight and tired! They also cross the knee joint and if they are tight, they can pull and change the angle of how your foot and knee absorb forces from the ground. Thus, it makes sense that we need to stretch these guys on a regular basis. See how below:
Step 1- Place your foot against a hard object (wall, step, etc.) and make sure your toes are up the side of it. Keeping your knee straight, lean towards the wall.
Step 2 – To get a different calf muscle, do the same as above but bend your knee. You might feel a difference between each muscle and between sides. Feel free to spend more time stretching which ever one feels tighter!
That is all I have for the stretches today. Let me know if you have any questions!