I know I need to stretch after a run but I'm always confused about stretching or warming up before a run. What do I do and how much do I do? Also, is the warm-up the same for a short run vs a long run? Hills vs no hills?
Dear Still Stretching,
So you're not afraid to stretch. That's half the battle! I must commend you on your efforts to stretch after your run, but I thank you for taking the next step; informing yourself! Most of us know we should be stretching, but aren't entirely sure what to stretch, how long, when we should do it and if it’s worth all the goofy looks non-runners might throw your way. Finding out the basics of stretching for a runner can help you create a simple stretching routine for yourself and answer all those questions.
First off, what’s the point of stretching? What is it good for and how can it help a runner? The right kind of stretching will primarily help a runner in two ways. First, a good stretch will increase range of motion and diminish the potential for injury. When our muscles are tight and lack mobility, they limit the amount of power we can get from our muscles and increase the risk of injury. Second, a healthy stretching routine will create some good muscle memory, involuntarily promoting good form when we run.
So what does that mean for a warm up or a cool down? The most effective workouts and stretching exercises are typically active movements, where there is motion involved. We call that Dynamic Stretching, which simply means stretching in motion. Dynamic stretching has the effect of not only increasing range of motion in a healthy way, but also increasing blood flow to the muscles that will need it.
Dynamic stretches include leg swings, lunges, butt kicks, high knee skips, anything that will start to get the heart rate up a little, but not leave you sweating.
As far as how much we should stretch as runners, consider your workout. A shorter, more intense workout requires a little more stretching. When you call on your muscles to work harder and faster like they do in a hill workout, it’s good to get them loose and warmed up, ready for that more intense activity. It’s not uncommon to have a warm up of 5 to 10 minutes for those harder, faster workouts.
In our longer runs, we can go with a less intense warm up. It’s a good idea to use the first part of your longer runs as your warm up along with some minor dynamic stretches before the run.
What about after a run? This is when most people opt to do some Static Stretching, which is the touch your toes kind of stuff. We sit and hold a position for about 30 seconds, then switch to the next. Both Static and Dynamic stretches will make up a good cool down routine.
Two important points to leave you with:
- Most of us will get more out of a good stretch and warm up routine than we will from adding miles. If you find you have only 40 minutes to run, you will benefit from devoting ten of those minutes to a warm up.
- And lastly don't overdo it! It can be healthy to stretch every day and even warm up before every run, but don't over extend or exert yourself in those movements. A little bit can go a long way.