One of the most polarising debates in the world of running – apart from whether to change running form or stick with heel-striking – is when you should do your stretching. The old guard say you should always warm up and stretch before your run and then again more thoroughly afterwards. A new school of thought has appeared in recent years, which maintains that stretching is exclusively for after running, but that more dynamic, functional stretches should be done prior to hitting the trail. The arguments seem mainly to focus on performance rather than injury, but I am now of the mindset that a pre-run stretching session is important.
I have tried full-on warm up and stretch routines before my workouts (and afterwards), and tried doing just a short warm up on the exercise bike followed by a slow jog before easing into my running. The result – for me – of doing the latter was injury. I’m sure the absence of a pre-training stretch was not the only contributing factor. However, my style of running involves many of the aspects preached by the various schools of natural running (eg Evolution, POSE, Chi, etc) and in these cases, there should be very little propulsive force from lower leg muscles, namely the calves. My problem was that I ignored this aspect. But many of the proponents of running without stretching first claim that the stretch simply relaxes muscle groups which need to be ready like coiled springs to enhance acceleration and performance, and that doing these pre-stretches will have an adverse affect. In other words, if you stretch first, your floppy muscles will not have the explosive power required for high performance.
The conclusion has to be that it depends on what style of runner you are. If you aim to run naturally, in the barefoot or minimalist style, your forward propulsion is generally controlled by forward lean, rather than pushing off with the toes and powering through with the calf muscles. In this scenario, a good stretch can only be good for relaxing the legs and increasing cadence – and helping to further reduce the chances of injury.
On the other hand, if you are a sprinter or a ‘power’ runner, then you’ll be using pure muscle strength to propel yourself forward, and might not want those muscles to be nice and relaxed before your run. In my painful experience, this way is the road to propulsive group injuries, mine being a combination of left popliteus and right gastroc (or soleus).
I am paying good money to a professional physical therapist to fix my legs, and one who happens to be a far better runner than me, as well as being a triathlete, and if he tells me that I must warm up, then stretch, then run, then stretch some more before cooling down, I’ve got no intention of ignoring that advice.
Leg Stretching Exercises For Runners
Whatever your own personal view about whether to do it before or not, here are four easy stretching exercises which I am doing now. They were shown to me by my physio, and I do them every day, two or three times. I am, of course, doing them before my short rehabilitation runs, and then again afterwards. If you disagree with pre-stretching, then try them out as post-exercise stretches if you are not already doing them. They work on the hamstrings, IT band, gastroc and soleus muscles.
Warning: If you are new to exercise, always consult your physician before starting a new program. These exercises are the ones I do myself and are for information only. If you try them out, always make sure you are warmed up thoroughly before doing so. The one simple way to injure yourself is to do stretches without warming up your muscles properly.
There are tons of ways of doing the hamstring stretching exercise, but at the moment I am doing them lying on a pilates mat. So, you need to lie flat on your back, with your legs out flat. Then lift one leg – keeping it straight – vertically and reach with both hands to hold onto the calf. Gently pull your straight leg towards your chest. Go as far as you feel comfortable but aim for a nice good stretch. Keep relaxed and hold the position for 30 seconds. Then lower your leg back to the ground.
Repeat the exercise with your other leg, and do three stretches per leg, holding each for 30 seconds. Here’s a clip showing you a good way of performing the hamstring stretch:
Iliotibial Band Stretches
As with the previous exercise, there are several ways to do IT band stretches. The one I am working on is the ‘figure 4′ stretch. So from a seated position with both legs bent at the knee and in front of you, cross one foot over the other leg above the knee. Gently push down on the knee, and lean forward maintaining a straight back as you do so. The version I do involves cupping the hands under the crossed-over knee and the ankle of the same leg, and lifting the leg towards the chest, while maintaing the basic figure-4 shape. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times on each leg. Here’s the simple figure 4 IT band stretch:
Most people do this particular gastroc stretch, although there are probably variants of it. You should stand in front of a wall and place your hands on it at shoulder height. The foot of the non-stretching leg should be about 12 inches away from the wall, and the other leg is then placed further back, as far away as you can. Lean into the wall and let your hips lean in until you feel the stretch in the calf muscle and hold for 30 seconds. For a good stretch, you can lift up the toes on the rear foot (keeping the heel flat). Once again, do the exercise 3 times on each leg, and here’s how the gastroc muscle stretch should look:
The soleus muscle stretch is similar to that for the gastrocnemius, except that the rear leg is slightly bent, to isolate the soleus from the gastroc. So stand facing the wall with your hands against it at shoulder height. Place your front foot near to the wall – or you can lift your front foot and actually lift the toes and rest them against the wall. Slightly bend the rear leg this time and feel the stretch in your calf. To get a deeper stretch, gently move your front knee closer to the wall by bending it. Again, 3 reps on each leg, each one lasting 30 seconds is ideal for this exercise. Here is a clip of how to perform the soleus stretch:
So those are four great stretches to do to get your legs nicely conditioned both before and after running. Of course, there are other stretches and warm ups which you should do to prepare for exercise, and I’ll cover some of these in future articles, but they involve getting your hips and pelvis warmed up and ready for action; and preparing your upper body for running also. After all, running is not just about the legs; it is a whole body experience. And the best part is that stretching is an activity you can do by yourself, something almost akin to a meditative practice, which is a blessing if you consider the potential problems of sharing this activity with somebody who doesn’t know what they are doing, as this following clip highlights quite hilariously:
If you have a view about stretching, in general, or have a point of view about the stretching before running versus after running debate, feel free to drop your wisdom in the comments!