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Stretching: When and why you need to be making the effort

Something I am sure most recreational runners are guilty of is neglecting their stretching after a session or their warm-up before heading out of the door. Admittedly, it doesn't always feel like the most exciting or appealing thing to do when you're exhausted after your interval session or brimming with endorphins post-long run. Sometimes a sudden surge of motivation may see you desperate to get out the door before it passes, however skipping those 10-15 minutes at the beginning and end of your session could be detrimental. If there is one aspect of running I have been forced to learn the hard way, it is the importance of a good warm-up and a cool down stretch.

Stretching has numerous benefits and should be regularly implemented into the daily lives of everyone, whether participating in regular exercise or not. It keeps our muscles long, lean and flexible, helping to increase our range of motion and avoid muscle cramping and soreness. Without regular stretching, muscles shorten and become tight and weak, leading to risk of joint pain, strains and muscle damage. For runners specifically, consistent stretching after exercise has been found to increase stride length, speed and overall running efficiency, thus enhancing performance. Shockingly, on average 50% of the running population gets injured in some way every single year. This demonstrates the toll running can put on our bodies and, although enjoyable, should be approached with care to avoid continual injuries. But, you may be wondering how to approach stretching and when during your session it should be carried out?

Before running: Warming up and dynamic stretching

Contrary to popular belief, and something I definitely wasn't aware of when I started out, stationary stretching of muscles before they are warmed up can actually cause damage and injury. This is since the increased blood flow to the area that occurs during exercise is necessary for muscles to become more pliable and amendable. Considering this, as part of a warm-up you should opt for dynamic stretching and save those common static stretches for after your run. Dynamic stretches are those involving active movements that stretch muscles without staying in one place for too long, such as walking lunges and hamstring sweeps. These, alongside other basic warm up exercises, prepare the body for functional movements by increasing heart rate, body temperature and blood flow. When heading out for a run, your body will already be fairly warm allowing you to run more efficiently than setting off on cold, tight muscles. When compared with static stretching before a workout, a dynamic warm up was found to be much more effective in improving running performance, especially in shorter, sprint interval sessions.

In my experience, warming up is especially important for shorter, higher intensity sessions to try and avoid injury. Nevertheless, I now try and incorporate at least 10 minutes of warming up before any run. My usual routine consists of high knees, heel flicks, walking lunges, hamstring sweeps, side lunges, leg swings and hip-openers (a.k.a 'open the gates'). If I am heading out for a higher intensity session, such as intervals or a time trial effort, I will additionally add a slow jog of at least 1km before starting. Since becoming consistent with my warm up routine, I have noticed considerably less niggles appearing and much less feelings of 'heavy legs' at the start of a run.

After running: Static stretching

After exercise is when you should be employing a routine of static stretches. This helps to avoid injury through decreasing your risk of muscle strains and overuse injuries. Since your muscles are already fired up from your run, you can begin to improve your flexibility which will allow your joints to move through a greater range of motion with less effort required. Stretching consistently for at least three weeks has been shown to have a positive effect on performance in a range of sports due to the increased range of motion and muscle strength. Who doesn't want to be a stronger runner AND more flexible?

Runners should be focusing on stretching the four main muscle groups; quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors and calf muscles. A great, basic routine of stretches targeting these key areas can be found here. Many people, myself previously included, are also not aware there are two major muscles in the calf that require stretching after running and are stretched in different ways; the gastrocenemius and the soleus. The usual calf stretch done with a straight knee targets the gastrocenemius, whereas the soleus must be stretched with the knees bent, one leg slightly behind the other. Neglecting either one of these muscles can result in stiffness and soreness in the calf which is only further aggravated by the load of running. In addition, muscles in our arms can also play a significant role in creating power to propel us forward as we run and so giving your arms and shoulders a quick stretch out wouldn't go a miss. Adding a variety of these stretches into your post-run routine will provide considerable benefits for your performance and your body, leaving you less likely to develop injuries and making you feel more like a supple leopard.

In all honesty, if I could go back and tell my newbie-runner self any pieces of advice then stressing the importance of a good warm up and post-run stretching routine would definitely be top of the list. Not only would my flexibility be sky high by now, but I would have likely prevented multiple injuries from occurring and setting me back weeks at a time. These elements can seem like an extra chore to add into your workout, especially if you enjoy running for the ease and convenience it holds as a sport. However, speaking from experience, they are more than worth the extra 10-15 minutes of your day and leave you feeling considerably less sluggish after a hard session.

Have you found any exercises to be particularly effective in your pre-run routine? Let me know in the comments!

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