Runners are guilty of many bad habits. We've been known to oversleep and skip a run, cave in and eat that slice of cheesecake, or overtrain to the point of injury.
Yet the most common fault shared by the majority of runners has got to be the attitude of "I don't need to stretch." While it's true that many runners hit the pavement every day with nary a stretch and never seem the worse for it, there's no escaping the science (and commonsense) that tells you there IS something to this whole stretching business. Let's talk about how, when, and why we stretch.
How To Stretch
Performing the right stretches the right way is way more important than stretching itself. Improper form while stretching - or doing the wrong stretches - is a leading cause of injuries for runners.
Flexibility does not come overnight. Many people begin a stretching program only to abandon it soon after because they haven't seen it make a difference in their runs or flexibility. Patience. You can't train for a marathon overnight and you can't alter years of rigidity in two months time. If you stick with your stretching program, you will see results.
Perform stretches slowly and gradually. The theory of "no pain, no gain" does NOT apply to stretches! If something hurts, stop. Don't try to stretch past the tightness. Instead, focus on your breath, breathing slowly and deeply and exhaling as the muscle stretches. Hold the stretch for anywhere from 20-40 seconds. Slow stretching avoids the contraction reflex that occurs if a stretch is applied too quickly. It also helps the muscle stretch further.
Repeat this mantra: Bouncing is bad. (Say it with me: "Bouncing is bad. Bouncing is bad.") Bouncing to further a stretch almost guarantees a pulled or torn muscle in your future.
Be sure and stretch equally on all sides. And remember there's more to a runner than just the legs. Stretch your arms, neck, back, and torso for maximum benefit.
When To Stretch
There's debate on when to stretch - before or after a run. What's agreed is that cold muscles injury easily. For this reason, many runners and coaches advise you don't try to stretch muscles before a run, instead doing an easy 10-minute warm-up jog and then stopping to stretch. (This especially applies to morning runners who go from the bed to the pavement with no chance for muscles to wake up before running.)
After run stretches are perfect as your body is warm and this is when you can really gain in flexibility. Don't wait too long to stretch. Your body cools down and muscles contract within 30 minutes after a run. Get your stretches in soon after you stop.
Bonus Tip: Stretching doesn't have to be focused around runs. A yoga class or yoga exercises performed a couple times a week are an excellent addition to your running regime.
Why We Stretch
Stretching improves athletic performance, reduces soreness, promotes healing, and strengthens muscles. Flexibility also prevents injury and can keep you on the road with increased muscle efficiency.
If you're looking to improve your speed, a consistent stretching program can help lengthen your stride. Stretching - like running - also enhances body awareness and is great for relaxation.
Finally, if you're just beginning your running program, set good habits early and start a stretching program along with it. For experienced runners who aren't stretching - it's never too late to start.