Should you stretch before you run? The answer to that question used to be a simple “yes,” but recently health experts have questioned its effectiveness. Some recent research urges avoiding it altogether, while others who recommend it argue that you should only stretch for short spurts of time.
The overall benefits of stretching are indisputable, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center, and they’re still in popular use among professional coaches and physical therapists. Stretching helps increase the range of motion around a joint and also loosens up the stiffness in the muscles. Muscles that are warmed up before a stress such as exercise are better able to deal with it when it hits you.
We spoke to Dr. Alice Holland, a physical therapist from Side Strong Physical Therapy, for her take on stretching and a few essential quad exercises.
Treating runners for nearly eight years at the Portland-based clinic where she is director, Holland says that anatomy knowledge and form are essential for you to get the most out of your run. Running involves your quadriceps or “quads,” which is the group of muscles at the front of your thigh, attached at the top of the kneecap. “When the leg strikes the ground, the quads control the deceleration,” Holland explains. “Without them, you’d basically fall.”
Can a stretch ever tear or damage your muscle? “There shouldn’t be any tearing damage in a stretch — no injury,” says Holland. Stretching merely involves fibers gliding over one another. What’s important is knowing when to stop: “You’ve stretched enough when you don’t feel any tightness as you take your first few steps.” It helps to warm up a bit before you stretch your muscles; simply walking for five or ten minutes will do. Also, avoid bouncing when you stretch.
The Stretches You Need
Holland recommends the following three stretches for both before and after a run, to help you gain and maintain flexibility in the quads:
- Kneel on your right knee and curve your pelvis under like a "scared dog."
- Flatten out your lower back and keep shoulders and chest upright.
- Bend forward from the hip to the knee even more to stretch the right hip and quad.
- Hold for 30 seconds and then switch knees.
The kneeling stretch is especially useful for older people and pregnant women. You can use a soft cushion or pillow under the knee for more comfort.
- Stand on your left foot and grab your right shin behind you.
- Tuck your pelvis in, pull your shin towards your glutes, making sure your knee is pointing to the ground.
- Hold for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
- Lie on your back at the corner of your bed (where it is the firmest), making sure that your tailbone is at the edge of the bed.
- Grab one thigh and pull it towards your chest. Make sure that your back is flat and not arched. Let gravity pull down on the leg that is dangling.
- Relax into the stretch so as not to tense up the muscles. Hold for 1 to 2 minutes and then switch sides.
Form is Vital
It’s not just the stretches you do and the amount of time you spend doing them that keep your quads flexible, says Holland: “If you’re not doing it properly, you’re just wasting your time.”
Her biggest tip for runners is maintaining good form while stretching, as bad technique can make it less effective. She emphasizes keeping the back straight — to not arch. As Holland explains it, arching the back “decreases the amount of stretch” in the muscle. When you arch your back, the muscle is looser and gets less of a stretch.
In addition to properly stretching the quad muscles, the calf muscles are also involved in running and should be warmed up appropriately for 30 seconds.
When muscles and tendons aren’t warmed up, they don’t work as well. This can increase the chances of you getting a strain or partial tear. If you think you have a severe muscle injury, see your doctor. But as a general rule, if your pain is bearable, remember to RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. You should also avoid running until the pain goes away.