Friday, August 24, 2007

Stretching and Injury Prevention

Everybody knows they should stretch. The problem is a vast majority of runners simply don't know how to do it right! For a while I had heard there is more to stretching than I learned in grade school gym class, but I never listened too much. I had my way of doing things. I was stubborn. One day I was at the book store (Borders or Barnes & Noble, not sure which) and finally gave in and bought a fairly cheap ($25) book on stretching: The Anatomy of Stretching by: Brad Walker. Since then, I've completely revamped how I stretch; and it has paid off!

There are several parts stretching which are important, and are very common mistakes to make, here are some pointers:
  • Breathe! A lot of people have a tendency to hold their breathe while stretching. This makes the benefits of stretching much less since the muscles aren't getting the oxygen they need.
  • Hold it -- The benefits of stretching don't really start until you've held it for 10 seconds. This means 10 seconds should be the bare minimum, I usually hold them for 20. Actually, I generally hold it for 5 deep breathes, this combines the last two points!
  • Only until there is tension -- Stretching shouldn't hurt! Go as far as there is tension, and hold it there; it will generally get easier, so feel free to move forward as your muscle stretches, but only to the point of tension. If you stretch too far the body has a protective reflex to contract the muscle, which won't help with stretching at all!
  • Don't bounce! This is one I actually learned in gym class, but wasn't emphasized much. Let me emphasize this point. When bouncing further, you constantly cause the protective reflex, then when bouncing back you aren't stretching it much. Keep it constant!
To me, stretching falls into three big categories, each with their own purpose:
  • Before running -- Prevent pulled muscles, injury prevention
  • After running -- Aids the recovery process, improves flexibility
  • Stretching sessions -- Improves flexibility
Now, let me elaborate a little bit on each of these.

Before running:

You need to be careful when stretching before running. Its a big no-no to stretch cold muscles. If I can borrow a metaphor from Walker, its like trying to stretch an old rubber band; they don't have the usual stretch to them.

There are two ways to warm up muscles: active and passive. Active is just as it sounds; do something active to get your core temperature up a little bit to warm your muscles. You could run for a few minutes before stretching, do jumping jacks, push ups, sit ups; anything to get the blood pumping. Personally, I like to do push ups and sit ups.

An example of a passive warm up is to take a nice hot shower to warm up the muscles without doing work. I opt out of this because I don't like the idea of taking a shower both before and after I run, but to each their own.

After being warmed up, stretch away using the guide lines above!

After running:

The point of stretching after running is to help with the recovery process. This will help your legs not feel like bricks the next day; although it won't completely alleviate it. I usually hold stretches for a little longer after running. I'm not sure why, but I do.

Stretching sessions:

This is something really new for me. I never would have considered stretching except to run, but now I do; imagine that! The point of this is to improve flexibility, which in turn helps prevent injury. Also, I'm 95% sure stretching helped cure some knee problems I had in the past. My knee was hurting a little bit for a few weeks, and the only thing I think I changed in my training was my stretching; and viola, no more knee pain! And this is when running 50+ mile a week on pavement, so I think that says something.

In my opinion, its very important to make stretching a key part of working out; not an after thought, not "oh, if I remember to." Its helped my knee recover from what could have turned into an injury, so its definitely part of my routine now. Plus, its fairly relaxing to boot!

If theres any interest, I might post something on specific stretches I've deemed as useful. Although if there isn't much interest, I'm not going through the trouble of taking pictures of the different stretches. If you want to see specific examples, be sure to let me know! One more time I'd like to recommend the book The Anatomy of Stretching by Brad Walker; it talks in very simple terms and breaks things down very well. I've recommended it to several friends who purchased it, and none have been disappointed.

Happy running (and stretching!),


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