Stretching before a run: What should you be doing?
Hi LTCers! We are fortunate to have biokineticist (and trail junky) Devon Coetzee share some knowledge on what we should actually be doing before a run.
You don’t have to search for long at the start of a race to find the countless number of runners who are stretching in an attempt to prepare themselves for the distance. Whether it is the common ‘leg up on a ledge’ to stretch out those hammies, or the all-too-familiar quad stretch where you hold your foot behind your back, you can almost guarantee that the majority of the runners will be doing some variation of stretching.
If you were to ask them why they were stretching, their responses would be even less varied than their stretches: “to warm-up” or “so that I don’t get injured”. Although these are believed to be valid answers, do they in fact hold any truth?
The simple answer is; not really.
This is because stretching is a little more complex than we think. There are different types of stretches that offer different benefits. What you see before the start of a race is known as static stretching. This is when you hold a position in which you feel a muscle stretching. The idea is that this will lengthen the muscle, making it better prepared to tackle the task of running.
But why would a muscle that is now longer be better equipped to improve your performance or reduce your risk of injury?
Recent evidence suggest that static stretching may actually be detrimental to performance and risk of injury, since lengthened muscles lack the ability to stabilise joints. What is beneficial, is the concept of dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching aims to activate relevant muscles by working them through an exaggerated range of motion. This not only prepares the muscles for the upcoming task, but also mobilises the relevant joints involved so the body as a whole is working optimally by the time you start running. In order to perform a dynamic stretch, you simply exaggerate the movements that are required in the task that you are warming up for.
The best dynamic stretch for a runner is the front-to-back leg swing. To do this, you stand on one leg (a functional running position by the way) and simply swing your other leg out in front of you whilst keeping the knee straight. Once you reach your end range, you should feel a stretch in your hamstring. At this point, you swing your leg back until it is behind you, whilst bending the knee to get a stretch on the quads and hip flexors. Apart from stretching the quads and hamstrings, this exercise also hyper-activates the hip flexors and glutes, thus warming them up and preparing them for the run. It is best to start off with a relatively small range of motion, increasing it with every couple swings. Repeat this exercise for about 20 seconds on each leg. It is important to keep your upper body as still as possible so that all the movement is coming from the hips.
Other great dynamic stretches include side-to-side leg swings, squats and calf raises. Remember to start off conservatively, allowing your body to ‘warm-up’ and become accustomed to the movement, before increasing your range of motion.
Although static stretching is not ideal before a run, it is not to say that it should never be performed. Since the function of static stretching is to lengthen a muscle, it should only ever be done for muscles that are too short or tight. This usually requires a clinical assessment with a biokineticist to assess which muscles are too short and which muscles are lengthened at rest. The risk is that you could be stretching a muscle that is already too long, ultimately increasing your risk of injury.
So, although stretching is thought to be a simple exercise, it is important to note that there is a bit more to it. Different types of stretching are beneficial in different ways, but the general rule of thumb is that if you are wanting to warm-up for a run, ditch the static stretches and opt for the dynamic exercises. Hopefully your body, and your stopwatch will thank you for it.