Stretch before you run to improve your performance

Make time to stretch before you run

Why stretch? I always seemed to be on a tight schedule when I trained and wanted to make the most of my precious exercise time. Stretching was simply something that got in the way of my lunchtime runs.

Little wonder then that every few months I would succumb to some form of niggly injury; usually nothing too serious, but annoying none-the-less. After one particularly nasty calf strain, however, I had to seek the services of a physiotherapist. Examining my rock-solid Achilles tendons, the first thing she asked me was how long I stretched for… cue a valuable (and painful) lesson on the need to stretch effectively before exercise.

Stretching is now a very welcome and even enjoyable part of my exercise regime. In this article I’m going to explain why and how you can stretch.

Benefits of stretching

Tight and inflexible muscles are seen as a natural consequence of ageing, either due to physical changes in the muscles themselves or because of reduced activity over time. You can’t do much about getting older, but you can improve your flexibility by paying particular attention to stretching.

Regular stretching before you exercise can help you:

Improve your range of movement

Tight muscles limit your joints’ ranges of movement and can lead to pain and discomfort in the muscles and joints. Stretching relaxes and elongates a muscle, reduces tension and increases the distance over which it can contract before pain and injury occurs.

Get more out of your physical performance

Tight muscles do not contract and relax efficiently and as a result can reduce your strength and power. They can also reduce the amount of oxygen and nutrients available during exercise, leading to increased muscle fatigue.

Decrease the risk of injury

Incorporating stretching moves into your warm up routine raises your core and muscle temperature, increases the blood (and oxygen) flow to your major muscles and tendons, and reduces the risk of soft tissue injury.

Reduce post-exercise soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common experience on the days after strenuous physical activity, particularly if you haven’t exercised for a while. Vigorous exercise causes micro tears within the muscle fibres, and lactic acid and other waste products accumulate. Stretching after exercise helps lessen DOMS by lengthening the muscles fibres, improving the local blood supply and removing the waste products of exercise that irritate the muscle.

Warm up before you stretch

The aim of a warm up is to prepare you for exercise both physically and psychologically. Warm up activities gradually increase your heart and respiratory rates. They also raise your body temperature and increase the blood (and oxygen) flow to your major muscles and tendons.

Warm up for a minimum of 5 minutes. If you are newer to exercise or a little older, your body will respond better with a longer warm up.

Start your warm up just before you plan to begin your main workout. Warm up movements should be low impact and match the activity you are about to undertake. For example, start a warm up for a running session by walking quickly or jogging lightly. Gradually increase the intensity (for example by increasing the speed) so that your heart is working at around 70% of its maximum. At this intensity you are breathing heavily but comfortably and you can still hold a conversation.

Once you’re nice and warm it’s time to perform some dynamic stretches. These involve performing a gentler version of movements you will be doing in your main exercise session.

7 pre-run dynamic stretches

Here are 7 dynamic stretches that I now do before running:

  1. Open and close the gate: Raise your right knee to hip level, turn it out and open away from your body. This is known as “opening the gate.” Bring your knee back around in front of your body and then lower your leg (“closing the gate”). Repeat with your left leg. Repeat 5 times on each side.
  2. High knees: Run forward or on the spot while maintaining an upright posture and lift your knees until each thigh is parallel to the ground. Repeat 10 times.
  3. Heel flicks: Again, maintaining an upright posture, run while flicking your legs back so your heels tap your bum lightly. Repeat 10 times.
  4. Walking lunges: Stand upright and take a long step forward with your right foot. Bend your front knee to 90 degrees and your back knee until it almost touches the floor. Rise up and step forward with your left knee and repeat for 5 lunges on each side.
  5. Calf stretches: Place your hands on a wall in front of you and take a step back so your leg is straight and you can feel a stretch through your back leg calf. Swing the other foot from side to side creating a dynamic stretch to the back calf. Do 15 seconds with a knee straight, then bend the back leg knee slightly and repeat for another 15 secs. This time you’ll feel the stretch in your lower calf. Repeat 3 sets per side
  6. Hamstring sweeps: With your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your side, step forward and flex your foot so that your toes point upwards. Keeping your back flat, send your hips back and sweep your arms down toward the ground and as far forward as possible. Continue to sweep your arms up in a big circle, as you step back. Repeat on the other side and repeat in total 5 times.
  7. Sumo squats: Stand with your feet wide apart and your toes pointed outwards. Lower slowly into a squat with your thighs parallel to the ground. As you come up end with a small jump. Repeat 5 times.