There are a number of things you can do outside of your sport specific training - of running and walking - that will help decrease your chances of injury and increase your chance of improving. Starting a stretching program is one of these practices. For athletes, stretching refers to the elongation of tissue, which can either be muscle, fascia, or nerve tissues. Stretching either helps us maintain our flexibility or improves it, and can be done in a number of ways.
Like all things training - stretching is a subject with many opinions and views, from how to stretch, to how much to stretch, to whether you need to stretch at all. Stretching is beneficial to athletes, both as a pre training warm up, and as a way to aid recovery.
Sports science has shown us that muscles work by stretching – it is the essential action for our muscle to perform. The stretch, and the range of motion (ROM) of each muscle around the bone to which is attached (the joint) dictates our flexibility. So our flexibility refers basically to how much our muscles can stretch and the range of motion that each joint has.
Flexibility varies immensely from one individual to the next, and some of it is just the body we were born with. Even when you were a kid you probably noticed that some of your friends could do the splits, or do back bends, and some couldn’t, and everybody notices that flexibility decreases with age and when they have done intense training. Increasing your flexibility is a way of keeping your body young and supple, and of allowing it to perform better and more pain free.
Each individual has an optimal flexibility and range of motion that promotes a healthy pain free body. Issues with inflexibility are generally a feeling of tightness in the muscles and joints, pain and injury. Tight muscles do not function to their full range, and will affect the range of motion in a joint, which means that speed and power are compromised, as will be the natural efficiency for movement. Working on maintaining your body’s unique flexibility will allow you to perform better, recover faster from workouts, and may reduce the risk of injury.
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How to Stretch
Stretching will improve muscle flexibility and performance but it is very important not to overstretch, and not to stretch overly tight or cold muscles. Overstretching is counterproductive in athletes, and causes little micro tears in your muscle tissue that can lead to more soreness and injury.
Some people prefer to stretch before and after workouts, or some: only before, or only after. Generally it is easier to stretch muscles when they are warmed up a little, after about 10 minutes of light exercise.
There are two types of stretching we will consider for this post: dynamic and static.
Dynamic stretching, or stretches that are actively engaging training movements, are usually done before training. Arm swings and leg swings are examples of dynamic stretches. Walking lunges are also dynamic stretches for the hip flexors.
Static stretches are those that are held for several seconds in order to help muscles return to their normal state, and are usually done after training. You can do these stretches right after a training session, but also at the end of the day. When my children were little, I would stretch while playing Lego or other games on the floor. University athletes can often be found stretching on the floor with an open textbook in front of them.
The main muscles groups in running and walking that need to be stretched properly are:
Quadriceps and Hip Flexors: these are the large muscles in your thighs and at your hips, responsible of the dynamic movement of running and walking.
Glutes, Hamstrings and Piriformis: the muscles in your buttocks, hips and the back of your thighs react to the movement of your front of leg muscles contracting. Working on improved flexibility in these areas can help prevent the lower back pain associated with running and walking.
For some great photos of post training stretches for these muscle groups, this Runner’s World article nails it.
Soleus/Gastrocs (calf): the muscles on your lower legs affect the function of your knees, feet and ankles, which is important to the impact of running and walking. Stretching these muscles before and after running can go a long way to keeping your legs stable.
Pecs and Deltoids: muscles in the upper body and torso, and shoulders. While upper body isn’t as crucial, you want to avoid tension through the neck and shoulders so arm swings and shoulder stretches can help you stay relaxed, which helps posture and breathing.
When and how much to stretch is going to be something that you learn through experience. The recommendation is to start gently and be conservative, stretching a little before and after workouts. Often, busy people neglect to stretch at all, but rush away from a workout to get back to work or home for dinner. Taking a few extra moments to stretch your muscles post workout will, like post recovery nutrition, enable your body to recover faster and better from the session, and set you up to improve.