“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.
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 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 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.
From Running: The Complete Guide to Building Your Running Program by John Stanton, Penguin Publishing