Stretching or not stretching?

A fellow runner at the 2011 Ridgeway run is wise to stretch but I’m less sure of his atire!

Quite a lot of fuss is made by some people about stretching (and in my line of work, “doing a stretch” means something completely different).  At the gym, some men or women do a quick bit of stretching just before they go treadmill running but most do none.  Continuing the people watching theme, some stretch after a run but most don’t do any at all.  Just about everyone seems to walk away alright, although some stagger and some do look stiff.  When I was getting into running I saw this taking place and started to ask a few people about this and got a variety of responses.  It seems the views fall into three distinct groups:

The pre-exercise stretchers
These are generally the ones who appear newbee novices and do one or two stretches for just a few seconds and then go full blast on a treadmill.  A former colleague swore by this and passionately warned me I was heading for serious injury without doing this.  Now having read about this, it is likely this is not beneficial unless the muscles have already been warmed up in some way.  Stretching cold muscles can lead to injuries and yet being nice and loose is important before a race.  Therefore a jog or bike ride is a great way of warming, loosening up before having a stretch.

The post-run stretcher 
The post-run or race stretchers look as if they have a bit more experience and certainly don’t rush the stretching.  When they stretch they hold the position for 20-30 seconds and most look comfortable.  Some, on the other hand, look as if they’re in some pain.  Some look very supple and agile, lean and slim.

Why stretch at all?
Stretching is pulling the muscles as far as they would normally extend and then a little extra.  This creates tiny microscopic tears in the fibres which are then repaired afterwards, making the muscle fractionally longer.  Our bodies are wonderful at this.  Do this often enough and you’ll find you have increased your flexibility – you can take longer strides or maybe touch your toes a little easier.

And the benefits?
There are benefits at many different levels.  For the runner, stretching helps improve your running form – i.e. your balance, posture and efficient movements – less of those awkward, jerky painful looking movements.  It gives increased flexibility which is perhaps useful in running over uneven ground or having to take long strides going up a steep hill or even taking three steps at a time.  For people leading sedentary lifestyles, sitting around doing nothing will grind you to a halt sooner or later.  Everything will become more difficult and require more effort, which is when a vicious cycle is just going to get worse and worse.

And me?
I have learnt to do a few stretches which I do after a run and NEVER before.  I can feel the benefit and I can feel the penalty of having gone too far for too long.  It’s a case of learning a little more about the workings of my body through a little bit of trial and error.  There are many kind of stretches I’m learning – calf, back thigh, hamstring, front thigh, bottom (gluteal muscles), hip flexour, inner thigh, outer thigh and lower back muscles.

An important thing to remember when stretching – and this is really important – is not to go too far for too long.  Just go to the point of starting to feel a little uncomfortable , holding it there for 20-30 seconds and then easing off.  Remember, it’s about making tiny little tears which are easily repaired over night – not torn ligaments that require surgery!

If nothing else, it forms part of the cool down process, a chance to relax and reflect on what I’ve just done or achieved.

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