Stretching for Runners: Bare Bones Basics
Written by Ally Bowersock, Ph.D., CSCS, Co-Owner, RunAbout Sports Roanoke
Show up, run, chit-chat, leave. I don't know about you, but that's usually how it goes for me. You do that enough Saturday mornings in a row and a few weeks later BAM! That nagging pain in your arches starts to sneak back into your life. You step out of bed and feel like you're walking on nails. Your Achilles tendon feels like it may actually snap out of your skin and curl up like a question mark.
Perhaps you've experienced these symptoms and not considered how your stretching routine (or lack thereof) may have led to development of said symptoms. While consistent post-run stretching may not be a panacea for preventing running-related injuries, it is most certainly one of the most important aspects of training you can check off your to-do list before you consider any other avenues for addressing chronic, nagging issues like plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis. There are many ways to stretch, mobilize, and care for tight muscles, so we tried to boil down to basic stretches you should be practicing after every.single.run. Encourage your friends to join you in these stretches after your run. If you're solo at home, practice them while binging your fave Netflix show. If you're too busy to complete the miles prescribed on your calendar AND stretch after, ::gasp:: shorten your run so that you can build in a few minutes of post-run stretching. Just a few minutes after every session could be the reason you finish a training block strong and uninjured!
A few key points:*
1) Static stretches (like those pictured below) should be completed AFTER a workout. Core body temperature needs to be elevated at least one degree in order to sustain muscle plasticity resultant from the stretch activity. Static stretching done on "cold" muscles could actually induce injury rather than prevent it due to the lower core body temperature and unprimed musculoskeletal system. Dynamic stretches can be practiced before a workout, but that is for another blog post!
2) Static stretches should be held for 20-30 seconds/side for 2-3 repetitions if not more. So, for your side-lying quad stretch, you will lay on your right side and hold your left foot back for 20-30 seconds, switch to left side and hold 20-30 seconds, and then repeat that left/right process at least two more times (per stretch).
One leg extended, cross the opposite foot across your body. Slowly, lower your upper body onto the bent knee on the ground. You may need an elevated object like a yoga block or a pillow to support your elbows. If you're able, lean as much of your weight as possible onto the bent knee. Repeat steps mentioned above*.
With the foot flexed, extend one leg in front of your torso, the opposite knee bent and foot rests on the inner thigh of opposite leg. While maintaining a neutral spine (do not fold forward with bent back or neck), walk your hands down the back of the extended leg. Find a place that is tight but not painful to hold for at least 20 seconds. This may be a fairly erect posture if your hamstrings are very tight. Do not worry! Better to maintain a neutral posture and properly stretch than to bend in all the wrong places and risk additional injury from improper mechanics. You can also use canvas straps to assist you in maintaining the flexed foot position either sitting upright (pictured at right below) or laying on your back with foot flexed in parallel with the ceiling.
Hip Flexors (and much more)
The kneeling lunge is a great way to elongate tight anterior muscles while also opening up the chest and shoulders for a practice in mindful breathing and airway flow. As you lean into one side of your lunge, extend one arm toward the ceiling/sky. If you're able, take the extended arm diagonally back behind you. Consider extending fully through your fingertips as you hold the longest extension of this point. Quad stretches are not called out in this post but following this stretch with a side-lying quad stretch is a logical next-step if time allows. If tight on time, this stretch speaks to stretching elements of the quads and hip flexors which sometimes cause mobility issues for runners.
Variations on downward dog from yoga have tremendous benefit for runners. "Pedaling the feet" offers a softer transition into the extended heel position in downward dog that often brings a grimace to many a runners' faces during this portion of a yoga practice. Instead of actively pedaling the feet in this static stretch version, extend one heel toward the floor and keep the opposite foot light and supportive, allowing the extended heel to ease through a range of motion that is tight but not painful. Repeat above process of time and reps!*
One last attempt to hit the notoriously tight posterior chain while also targeting some often neglected adductor muscles, the butterfly stretch is one that allows you to play with posture to get a great glute/back stretch. With the "pads" of the feet together, hold your feet in your hands and tuck your elbows toward your inner thighs. Keeping a neutral spine, slowly lower your chest toward your hands. You can keep your feet tucked tight toward your butt, or you can extend the feet further away from your body for a slightly deeper stretch in the glute region and less focus on the adductor musculature.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the stretches runners should be practicing to avoid injury, promote muscle balance, and all the other things that stretching can help us do. However, if you're looking for somewhere to START and be consistent with this practice, these are a few of the key activities we at RunAbout Sports Roanoke and University Physical Therapy recommend for people of all ages and fitness levels. Share these tips with your run-group pals as a gentle nudge that it's cool to stretch, and yeah, we should probably do this every once in a while.
Allison (Ally) Bowersock is the co-owner of RunAbout Sports Roanoke. Ally has been a certified strength and conditioning specialist and personal trainer for over twenty years, and has worked with individuals ranging from cardiac rehab patients to Division I collegiate athletes. Ally has a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition as well as Health and Exercise Science from Bridgewater College, a Master of Science degree in Kinesiology with a specialty in Exercise Physiology from James Madison University, and a Ph.D. in Education with a cognate in Health Promotion from Virginia Tech. Ally shares a passion for fitness and health promotion with her husband, Tyler, who owns and practices physical therapy at University Physical Therapy. When not chasing their two kids and dog around, Ally and Tyler enjoy friendly competition in most anything outdoors (or indoors), reading, cooking, and exploring nature.