“Stretching? Well, maybe to get that last chocolate chip cookie on the far side of the table but not for running.”
A lot of runners will give you this kind of response when you ask about stretching. The debate on the benefits of stretching has been going for a while, between runners who follow a regular routine and runner who only do the occasional stretch as they blink away the previous night’s sleep.
Studies by the sports medicine experts tell us that there is a correlation between injuries and stretching habits. They found very little difference in injury rate, they concluded that sporadic stretchers often stretch incorrectly and at a wrong time.
So, why stretch, you ask, when you can drop into a major road race and see some of the elite runners who can barely touch their toes without bending their knees? Well, remember that most of the elite runners did a good job in selecting their parents. Pure speed has a lot to do with genetics. The rest of us need whatever other advantages we can find.
The thing I have found as I have aged from a runner to a coach is that maintaining flexibility is a real factor in maintaining some semblance of speed. Think of the two ways we run faster: a faster leg turnover and a longer stride. As we age, if we do not work at maintaining our flexibility, the stride length of your youth will soon leave us. Even if you are able to maintain your leg turnover, a shorter stride length means slower times.
The repetitive action of running causes the two major muscle groups, the hamstrings on the back of the high thigh and the quadriceps on the front, to tighten up when put through the relatively limited range of the running motion. Stretching is integral to maintaining a full range of motion at the ankle, knee and hip.
Warm-up, Stretching and Cooldown
Along with aerobic fitness and strength, flexibility is also an important component of total body health and wellness. It has been traditionally believed that performing warm-up exercises that include stretching can help avoid injury during the subsequent activity. Although this may not be completely true, a well-planned warm-up, cooldown and stretching regiment are important aspects of every training session.
The Purpose of Warm-up
The main purpose of warm-up is to ready the body for the subsequent activity. It assists the heat, lungs and muscles to prepare for the intensity of exercise and to ease the body through the transition from rest to exercise. There are many forms of warm-up. Calisthenics, stretching and other forms of stationary exercise are popular. The best form of warm-up playing at the service lines rather than using the full court. Start your activity, only on a smaller scale. How do you know if your warm-up has been long enough? Are you sweating yet? Perspiration is a sure sign that warm-up can end and your exercise session can begin.
The Purpose of Cooldown
The purpose of cooldown is the exact opposite of warm-up. Incorporating a planned cooldown at the end of your exercise session assists the body in the transition from exercise to rest. It allows the heart to adjust to the decreased intensity more slowly and can prevent labored breathing at the end of higher intensity exercise sessions. Blood flow can slow more naturally with a cooldown, which will prevent the pooling of blood in the exercising muscles and thus any dizziness or nausea that can result from suddenly stopping a particularly high intensity exercise. The optimal length of the cooldown period is dependent on the intensity and duration of the prior exercise, with long, more intense session requiring an extended cooldown. A cooldown period of 5 to 10 minutes should suffice for almost every workout. Like warm-up, the bulk of the activity done during cooldown should be the same as the exercise session, only slower or on a smaller scale. Finish your run with a slow jog or a walk.
Stretching is always best done when the muscles are warm. If your preference is to stretch before you work out, then be sure to do a full warm-up first (10 minutes). On the other hand, stretching can become a part of an extended cool down. If improved flexibility is your goal, then stretching while your muscles are cooling from a training session will give the best results. Never sit down and stretch too soon after your workout. Stretching is only recommended after an appropriate cooldown.
How to Ice?
- Your ice pack must allow insulation between the source of cold and the skin. Without this insulation, the skin can freeze and you have a case of self-inflicted frostbite. Plastic bags do not allow this insulation. Water from the melting ice does! You can apply ice directly onto your skin with no problem, as long as you keep it moving. You can wrap ice cubes in a wet towel or face cloth. But ice in a dry plastic bag on the skin will freeze your skin quite quickly. Many athletes keep Styrofoam cups of ice handy in the freezer. They are comfortable to handle and easily peeled back to expose more ice as they melt. They also provide a convenient sized ice surface. In general, an ice massage applied directly onto the skin, but with circular strokes moving over the affected area, is very effective therapy indeed. Rubbing the injury with a handful of ice works best for most injuries.
- You will feel three stages during your icing. First, of course, your skin feels cold. Second, the injury may actually ache a little, especially if you apply gentle pressure. (The gentle pressure is better than just “patting” the area.) The third stage will occur after about 10 minutes. The ice will act as a mild anaesthetic. Close your eyes and have another person very gently tap the place you have iced. You will not be able to feel the tapping.
- Numbness is the stage you want to reach. For a couple of minutes, you can remove the ice and gently put e injured area through as much range of motion as it can do without pain. While the injury is still acute, ice is what you need. This generally lasts 48 hours and maybe longer. If a slight movement reproduces the sharp pain of the original injury, your injury is still acute. When you feel that the sharp pain has been replaced by a duller ache and a distinct restriction of normal movement, you may move to the next stage in your recovery. If you have visited a therapist, follow the advice you are given. IF you are treating the injury yourself, put it through a gentle range of motion and begin as much activity as you can do without causing pain. Pain is absolutely your body’s warning signal. Pain indicates that you are causing further damage and delaying your eventual return.
From Running: The Complete Guide to Building Your Running Program by John Stanton, Penguin Publishing