Why stretch at all? The purpose of stretching is to improve muscle flexibility. Maintaining flexibility both prevents injury and improves running performance.
Lack of flexibility can cause the muscles to shorten, leading to strain and injury.
Usually, as one gets older, muscles become less and less flexible and it takes much longer to recover after a run, so it is important to stretch regularly.
There are many different techniques of stretching, but here are just two of them:
The first: static stretching which is perhaps the more commonly recognised method of stretching adopted by runners. The second: dynamic, movement-based stretching, which is increasingly being employed not just in running but in other sports too.
Here is a very short breakdown of these two ways of stretching:
What is it?
Static stretching is probably the most common form of stretching. The stretch is held in a challenging but comfortable position ideally for about 30 seconds.
It is generally best to warm the muscle up gently before holding a static stretch. For runners this could mean a gentle jog for ten minutes, then stretching before doing the main part of the run.
Static stretching can also be incorporated after a run as the muscles are already fully warmed up. It is a good idea to stretch very soon after the run, i.e. before you go to sit on the sofa or put the kettle on, as you risk your muscles cooling down and returning to a more inflexible state. This is not ideal as there is a risk of pulling or snapping something.
Why stretch in this way?
The benefits of stretching in this way: it helps prevent injury and keeps the muscles from tightening. It helps you to recover before your next session.
Examples of static stretches:
Some, but by no means all, running specific examples of static stretching are held calf stretch, hamstring, hip flexor and quad stretch.
What is it?
Dynamic stretching is stretching whilst moving the body through a controlled range of motion.
Each exercise is typically repeated 10-12 times, often starting with a small range of movement at a slower speed and increasing to a faster paced larger range of movement as the muscles warm up.
Why stretch in this way?
Dynamic stretching has beneficial effects on range of motion and form, not just in running but in normal daily activities. Dynamic stretches that specifically relate to the range of motion one uses while running can be particularly good for practising and maintaining good form, and stopping the development of muscle imbalance.
Examples of dynamic stretches:
(As roughly demonstrated by a series of stick people)
Swing one leg out to the side, then swing it back across your body in front of your other leg. Repeat.
Walk forward swinging your heels up to your glutes as you go. As it gets easier try it while jogging.
Get in a pike position (hips in the air). Put your right foot behind your left ankle. With your legs straight, press the heel of the left foot down. Release. Repeat 10-12 times on each side.
Lift your left leg up, bending the knee so it points out. Try to tap the inside of your left foot with your right hand without bending forward. Repeat 10 times on each side.
Keeping your back and knees straight, walk forward, lifting your legs straight out in front and flexing your toes.
Step forward using a long stride, keeping the front knee over or just behind your toes. Lower your body by dropping your back knee toward the ground. Maintain an upright posture and keep your abdominal muscles tight.
When properly employed, both forms of stretching are helpful in keeping the muscles flexible and preventing injury. Generally speaking static stretching will improve your static flexibility and dynamic stretching your dynamic flexibility, so they can both be incorporated into your training sessions.