Many of us have played various sports in our younger years and have approached running as a way to get some exercise in as an adult. There are a lot of questions you might have about running and getting started. How and when you should stretch and/or warm-up is a question I get asked often.
Stretching is actually the process of increasing your flexibility or range of motion. Static stretching is probably what you remember from junior high and high school, such as sitting in a circle and touching your toes is a great example. This type of stretching doesn’t require any movement. But you are going to want to think twice about doing static stretching before you head out the door for a run.
First of all running does not require a lot of range of motion, so there isn’t really much need for you to work at increasing your flexibility. More importantly, stretching cold muscles before you head out for your run, which is when they are at their weakest, can actually cause more harm than good. A lot of research shows that increasing your flexibility doesn’t actually decrease your odds of injury. It simply just makes you more flexible. However, stretching those cold muscles can cause them to tear and nobody wants that.
A lot of people use the terms stretching and warm-up interchangeably but they are actually very different. While stretching works at increasing your flexibility, warming-up does exactly that, it warms up your cold tight muscles. If you are new to running and want to do something before you head out for your run, a warm-up is what you are looking for. This is also important for athletes who are injured or prone to injury. Warming your muscles up can decrease your likelihood of injury. If you already are injured but have the go ahead to run from your doctor, you will definitely want to make sure you warm-up before most activities.
Unlike static stretching, warming up with a series of dynamic stretches will help heat up your body temperature, increase your heart rate, and get blood flowing through your body. Dynamic stretching uses the movement of muscles you will be using in your performance to get your body revved up for performance. By doing 5-10 minutes of this type of warm-up your body will be ready to head out for your run and perform at its best.
All you need to do for this type of warm-up is some light walking, jogging, marching with arm swings, hopping, or slow walking lunges. All of this is to be done nice and slow as a way to wake your body up for the upcoming workout. You can also add in some strides at the end of your workout as another form of dynamic warm-up. Throwing a few strides in right before you take off at the start of a race is also great plan of action (plus it makes you look like a pro!).
If you still feel the need to add static stretching into your routine keep in mind that it is best to do this on warm muscles. Static stretching works best either post run or any other time your muscles are already warm. Sometimes if my muscles are feeling a bit achy and tight, I find that a post hot shower stretch is the best for me. Just remember that if you do these stretches never do them on cold muscles and do not bounce as you hold the stretch. Also make sure to work both sides as you stretch. So if you stretch out your right calf, make sure not to neglect the left calf. Finally, don’t ever push through a stretch if it is painful. Don’t be a hero and try to painfully ease yourself into the splits. If it hurts, it means stop.