I bet that if a runner had to choose between a bloody alien invasion and a stretching session, he would opt for the aliens. In fact, the activity of “stretching” muscles is one of the most disliked and is often seen as an unnecessary waste of time.
I don’t think it’s necessary to tell you, but I will anyway, that instead stretching is very useful because it increases your flexibility, making your movement smoother and thus also improving your speed, and because-according to some (but it’s fair to say that the subject is still very much debated)-it reduces the risk of injury. What is certain, however, is that stretching, if done well, helps a great deal with everyday life and, in particular, running.
You must be thinking, “Okay, but when are you going to tell me what exercises to do?” Wait, I’m not done yet because it’s better before to understanding a little better what stretching is.
What are its benefits?
If you want to better understand what stretching is for, it is only fair to elaborate (if not, move on to the next chapter, I promise I won’t be offended).
First of all, stretching exercises make the running motion smoother, and the natural consequence is that you will run better, faster and be able to enjoy your runs more while having fun. And with smoother movement, you will consume less energy. And so you will go faster. It is a bit like “lubricating” a gear that has been idle for a while-you will be able to use it better and with less effort.
This is also because stretching improves blood flow, making the muscle more efficient.
In addition, by acting on areas that may be particularly tense for psychological reasons (even a stressful day is enough to stiffen your muscles), stretching exercises promote relaxation. It’s basically like getting a self-massage.
Pain and immobility
Let’s start at the beginning: when you stretch, however you do it, you should never feel pain. NEVER. You just have to feel the stretching sensation, the muscle “pulling.” And if you feel pain, it does not mean that “you are doing more,” it only means that you are hurting yourself, thus making the stretching session useless.
As for immobility, it is not always necessary. Static stretching-which, if done well, can be effective-came along in the early 1970s with Bob Anderson’s method of holding tension on the part to be stretched for about 30″ but, as he says Fulvio Massini (one of the best coaches we have in Italy), there is “the risk of damaging the back.”
What stretching method should I use?
Bob Anderson’s is a good one, but since the 1980s two New York physical therapists-Jim and Phil Wharton-have proposed a different way of stretching, the Warton method, in fact. This method involves working on isolated muscles (and no longer on groups) with exercises involving particular movements associated with breathing in which one must hold the position for a period of 1 to 2 seconds, exhaling when going to the position to be held and inhaling when returning to the starting position. This method is much gentler and does not attack the musculoskeletal system, promoting its activation. The exercises are not so easy to learn, and there are almost 60 of them. Here are some of them.
As you can see, all it takes is a rope and the desire to engage in this activity that we know has so many benefits on us and our running.
When to stretch?
Definitely before the race. But also in the immediate after run and as a stand-alone activity to improve our efficiency. However, even in daily life, after a period of immobility (perhaps because you have been sitting for 8 hours at a desk), stretching is a very healthy thing to reactivate our body.
What exercises should I do?
This was where you wanted to get to, wasn’t it? “Tell me what to do and don’t get lost in too much talk. ;)”
I think the best exercises to do are those that Fulvio Massini himself proposes, inspired by the Wharton Method but easier to perform.
Stretching before running
All exercises should be done for 5-10 repetitions (per leg):
Hands behind the back and back straight throughout the exercise, bring one leg forward and hold it taut; the other leg bends slightly. From this position, as you exhale, flex your back forward until you feel the back muscles of your straight leg lengthen. Breathing in, you then return to the starting position.
Hands behind back, bring one leg forward. On exhaling, bend the front leg and push forward with the pelvis, thus stretching the back leg, which should always keep the heel on the ground. Inhale to return to the starting position.
Legs spread forward (sagittal spread position) and hands behind the back. Exhaling, bend the legs until the knee of the back leg almost touches the ground (the lunge movement, to be clear). Return to starting position by inhaling.
Stand with legs apart. As you exhale-keeping your torso straight and your hands behind your back-one leg flexes and the other remains outstretched by turning the toe upward.
Breathing in, you then return to the starting position.
For all post-run exercises, I recommend that you get Andiamo a Correre, Fulvio’s book.
When not to stretch?
First of all, if you don’t have enough time: it would not allow you to do the exercises properly, and-a poorly done exercise-can bring more harm than good. Same if you are too tired after a workout: in this case, it is best to postpone until when you are a little more clear-headed and can give your posture the attention it requires.
Different if you are injured (or feel “abnormal” pain): in this case, any kind of activity should be done under the advice of your doctor or physical therapist.
Maybe now you will continue to hate stretching however, you certainly have a few more reasons to love it. ;)