Olympic distance runner and physical therapist Megan Wright debunks some stretching myths and runs through the merits of dynamic stretching exercises for injury-prevention and performance
Stretching can be a confusing topic for runners. You might have read somewhere that you have to hold every stretch for 15-30 seconds, another source will advise you to only do dynamic stretching, someone else will tell you to hold your stretches for three-to-five minutes, and then there’s the final person who insists that all stretching is bad. People talk about static, dynamic and ballistic stretching, as well as myofascial release. What does it all mean and what should runners do?
No Status Quo on Static Stretching
Static stretching, which involves no movement during the stretch, is the most typical form of stretching. It used to be popular before exercise, but is now mainly performed after a workout, at other times during the day, or not at all.
Dynamic stretching means that the stretch involves movement. These stretches are often sport-specific and provide an excellent pre-run routine.
Don’t Go Ballistic
Ballistic stretching involves bouncing at the end of the range of the stretch. You might have seen this in movies from the ’70s, but it’s been largely abandoned due to the risk of injury.
Used by physical and massage therapists, the goal is to release the fascia, which is the tissue that encloses the muscle.
So what is the best way to stretch in order prepare for training, optimize performance and to prevent injury and to recover properly? The optimal way to prepare for training appears to be dynamic stretching. Proper dynamic stretching involves gently moving your joints through an entire range of motion and gradually increasing the range and the velocity. You can use a strap or just the momentum of your limb.
Benefits of a Dynamic Warmup
Dynamic stretching recruits more muscle fibres than static stretches and is sport-specific. Research shows that static stretching may in fact be inhibiting muscle firing, which can lead to decreased performance and potential injury. Another argument against static stretching is that muscles operate on a bell curve for optimal length. This means that muscles that are too tight or too loose have decreased strength.
Muscles are made up of many tiny units called myofibrils, which are broken down into actin and myosin fibres. The length created when you stretch is the amount of overlap of these fibres. Too much overlap and you’ll be tight and have trouble achieving full range of motion. Too little overlap and you’re too loose, which essentially weakens and destabilizes the muscle.
Here’s the warmup that I use before big races and every day at practice. I started doing this routine in 2007 while preparing for the Pan American Games.
First, run a light warmup jog of five to 20 minutes to gradually increase your heart rate and boost circulation in the muscles. Now, you’re ready for the dynamic stretching routine:
Simple Hamstring Warmup: Lying on your back with your legs straight, kick one leg in the air 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.
Upper Hamstring Warmup: In the same position, hug one knee to your chest and try to straighten out your leg 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.
Groin Muscle Warmup: Still lying on your back, raise one leg straight up above your head and keeping your leg as straight as possible, swing your leg wide to the outside 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.
Hip Warmup 1: On your back, raise one leg straight up above your head and kick your leg cross-body towards your opposite shoulder 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.
“The Scorpion” Warmup for Hips and Lower Back: Flipping over onto your stomach, kick one leg behind you to towards the opposite shoulder 10 times. Repeat with the other leg.
Hip Flexor Warmup: In a lunge position with your back knee resting on the ground (using a mat or towel for comfort), grab your back ankle and pull it towards your buttocks.
Hip Warmup 2: In a standing position, face something sturdy to hold onto and swing one leg from side to side 10 times, keeping it straight, with the swinging foot crossing in front of the standing leg. Repeat with the other leg.
Hip Warmup 3: Still in a standing position, turn sideways and brace yourself with one hand on the support beam or wall. Swing the inside leg front to back 10 times. Turn to the other side and repeat with the other leg.
You can follow this up with a few quick strides of about 50m, with a walk or easy jog between each. This will get your blood pumping and your body primed to take on the challenge of any workout or race.
The cooldown: After your workout, it’s important to do a cooldown jog and get in enough recovery nutrition as soon as possible.
Hold off on the massage: It’s best not to perform myofascial release, massage and deep stretching soon after a workout. Your muscles are vulnerable after you’ve worked them in training or racing, and you may have acquired strains or micro-tears that need to heal.
Megan Wright (née Metcalfe) represented Canada in the 5000m at the Beijing Games. She has a PB of 15:11.