When Michelle MacLean, 38, started running outdoors nine years ago, she experienced hip pain after her runs, along with tight hamstrings and discomfort on the outside of her thighs. “I used to go for massages quite a bit to relieve the pain caused by those issues and as a preventive measure so they wouldn't get worse,” says Michelle. “But then I started doing Iyengar yoga, which focuses on precise body alignment and stretches, about four years ago, and it has made a huge difference. It helped increase my strength, flexibility and endurance, and through a regular practice my issues tended to self-correct, therefore reducing my chances of getting injured.”
Michelle, a senior communications adviser with the Workers' Compensation Board of Nova Scotia in Halifax, who has completed one full marathon and seven half-marathons, also tries to stretch after running, when her muscles are warm; she believes stretching helps protect her muscles and joints from the constant pounding of feet on pavement and reduces muscle soreness, which improves performance. “I never stretch before running because I hear you shouldn't stretch when your muscles are cold,” she says.
While she is sometimes slack about stretching after running, Michelle does have a yoga routine for runners that she does after running when she's feeling extra tight.
When to stretch and why
Though most fitness experts agree that stretching is important, research is not clear about the ways in which stretching helps, says Norman Tinkham, a physiotherapist at Golden Ears Physiotherapy Clinic in Maple Ridge, B.C.
What they do agree on is that one of the greatest benefits of stretching seems to be that it helps increase the length of muscles and tendons, leading to improved flexibility and range of movement -- which means limbs and joints can move farther before an injury occurs.
Stretching also ensures that muscles and tendons are working efficiently; the more conditioned they are, the better they can handle the pounding they'll take from certain types of exercises and sports.
Personalize your regimen
Because the research is not conclusive about all aspects of stretching, many people -- even the experts -- tend to take a personal approach to their stretching routine based on their particular sport and their body's strengths and weaknesses.
Page 1 of 2 – on page two: find out how to stretch properly!
One thing that is known for certain is that stretching and warming up are two separate activities, and that you should not stretch before you've done a warm-up -- when your muscles are cold.
“Before starting a workout or sport, it's important to warm up for about 10 minutes,” says Tinkham. “However, the more intense the workout, the longer the warm-up should be. How you warm up depends on the activity you're planning to do. For a sport that includes running, warm up with a light jog; for a racquet sport, do some easy hitting; and before a gym workout, do any cardio activity,” he says.
“Ideally we should warm up, then lightly stretch the appropriate muscles for the activity (for instance, leg stretches for running sports), do the activity, warm down, then stretch more to help with injury prevention.”
Certain activities tend to tighten muscles more than other activities, and running -- whether it's done as a sport on its own or is an aspect of other sports, such as soccer or baseball -- is probably the worst. “That's because running is repetitive and can be hard on weight-bearing joints,” says Tinkham, 43, who has competed in five world championships in competitive cross-country running.
Stretching after running -- even if you're running in short spurts -- is very important for injury prevention, he says.
“Some specific injuries, such as runner's knee, which is an overuse injury resulting in pain in or around the front of the kneecap, can be caused by lack of flexibility, not enough strength or both. And some people have certain muscles that they need to stretch prior to an activity or they won't make it through their run or soccer game without some pain or an injury; for instance, if they have an old hamstring injury.”
How to Stretch
To stretch properly, move slowly and smoothly and don't hold your breath (breathing deeply and evenly helps increase a stretch). “Know your own limits and let your body be your guide,” says Janna Wentzell, a certified exercise physiologist, kinesiologist and an anatomy instructor in the school of recreation management and kinesiology at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “Stretching shouldn't be painful or cause any soreness. If you feel any pain, stop.”
Wentzell, 35, runs five to 10 kilometres outdoors, four or five times a week when the weather is nice. Her warm-up consists of jogging slowly for a few minutes until she no longer feels stiff. If at that point she still feels stiff or tight, she does a four-minute series of stretches targeting her quadriceps, hamstrings, hips and lower back (she holds each stretch from 10 to 30 seconds and does it twice on each side). She then heads off on a 40-minute run, followed by a cooldown of slower running and a repeat of some of the prerun stretches with an added calf stretch.
“As children we're very flexible,” says Wentzell. “As we age, if we don't use it, we lose it. Flexibility is something you have to work at on a regular basis.” Though she doesn't always stretch before a run, she always stretches after. “Given that our flexibility decreases as we age, there is always a place for stretching.”
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