You may or may not know that I’m currently knee-deep into training for my fourth marathon. However, before I started, I spent time reflecting on my previous training and races and set not only time goals for myself, but also goals to improve my running in general. Reflection and goal-setting is something I wholeheartedly believe in, for everyone, not just runners. It’s crucial to take stock of your goals and your life every now and then so that you know where you’re headed (and can appreciate how far you’ve come!).
I decided that one of main focuses this time would be recovery: making sure I rest and give my body what it needs to rejuvenate and build fitness between runs. With recovery, comes stretching/flexibility, which I’ll admit, I often blew off, muttering that it was just a waste of time. However, the more I read about flexibility for runners, the more I felt I needed to add stretching into my post-run routine. In order to make myself do it, I made stretching after each run a goal because I will never let a goal go unmet without a fight.
Stretching and flexibility are very important, not just for runners, but for everyone. While there is conflicting evidence as to whether stretching is helpful for injury prevention, there are many other benefits reaped when you incorporate stretching into your life, at least a few times a week. For example, stretching:
- increases your range of motion (1): the pounding and motion of running definitely strengthens your legs, but it also makes your muscles short and tight. Stretching will lengthen those muscles, allowing for increased mobility; this can make your stride feel so much better (and easier) and enhance your performance.
- speeds recovery: stretching has been touted to help hasten recovery from injuries; the act of stretching enhances blood flow to the muscle(s) being stretched, which helps bring good, healing nutrients and oxygen in and take waste away faster (2)
- improves mood: stretching feels good! When I stopped making stretching a chore, it became almost like giving myself a kind of massage… so relaxing!
- puts you in touch with your body’s cues and areas of tension: so rarely do we practice self-care, and by taking time to stretch, you learn to listen to how your body feels and assess where you’re carrying excess tension. Than you can address it, feel better, and hopefully catch it before it has a chance to turn into an injury, like a pulled muscle or strained back!
Below are my top 7 go-to stretches for after my run. Remember to move into each position until you feel a slight stretching sensation and that you should not feel any sharp or stabbing pains. This should feel good, not painful! Hold each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds and breathe deeply into the stretch, focusing on relaxing each area.
- Downward Dog: stretches the hamstrings (notoriously tight on runners and can lead to low back pain or pulled muscles and negatively affect your legs’ range of motion and therefore your stride), and calves. Push your tailbone high into the air for best results. Having bent knees in this pose will put a greater stretch on your hamstrings, and “walking out” my legs really helps my calves loosen up.
- Runner’s lunge + a quad stretch: stretches your quadriceps on your back leg and your hamstrings on your front leg. Raising your arm (on the same side as your back leg) overhead stretches out that same side hip flexor and psoas muscle, often problem areas for runners. Twist to grasp the ankle of your back leg and pull gently toward your bottom to stretch the quad of the back leg. Lean back with your torso as well as into the lunge for a greater stretch, as tolerated.
- One-legged Pigeon Pose: known in yoga as a “hip opener,” this pose stretches the hip area, piriformis (infamously causing that sore spot across your glute), and iliotibial (IT) band. Be sure to keep your hips square, the thigh in line with your torso and your the foot flexed to protect your knee. Ideally, your calf should be perpendicular to your body. Fold forward only as far as you feel comfortable. You can also do this stretch on your back (shown below right) with one ankle over the opposite knee and pulling your legs toward your chest.
- Seated twist: stretches the hip, IT band, and
low back. As a bonus, as a twist, this stretch is also a great detoxifier and cleanser of your system. Inhale as you straighten your back, exhale and twist further. Gentle pressure on your bent leg will let you twist even more.
- Deep side lunge: stretches your adductors (the inner thigh muscles) and the groin. This pose (along with the previous 4) finishes out stretching the major muscles of the hip/pelvis/leg/low back area.
- Trapezius + scalene stretch: these muscles tend to get tight and tender from just everyday life, especially if you sit at a computer desk all day and slouch. I also tend to carry a lot of my stress here, and sore spots in these muscles really hinder my breathing while running (the scalenes attach to your uppermost rib(s)). Extend one arm at your side and use the opposite hand to gently pull the head down toward your shoulder (photo, below left).
- Chest stretch: the upper body is often neglected in runners, so this stretch (and #6) addresses the upper body. This stretch is good for increasing mobility in your chest wall/ribcage, which could help make breathing deeper easier. Squeeze your shoulder blades together (photo, above right).
I hope you find these stretches helpful, whether post-workout or even as a great, gentle way to wake up your body in the morning.
This post is the first of a “Run Strong” series I’ll be writing every now and then on this blog! During each post, I’ll focus on a different topic to help improve your running! What topics would you like to see covered? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts!
Have you made stretching a habit or do you tend to blow it off like I used to? What other stretches do you find particularly helpful?
1. Lipman, Frank. “Why Is It Important to Stretch?” 13 Aug 2013. <http://www.drfranklipman.com/why-is-it-important-to-stretch/>.
2. Williamson, Justin. “Why Stretching is Important.” 13 Aug 2013. <http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/15615/1/Why-Stretching-Is-Important.html>.