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Stretches for Runners
Ah, the post run stretch: a time to find a patch of grass, let the heart rate slow and the mind calm. This is the time in my life when I'm in my most meditative state. Stretching the body feels like a cleanse - a washing out of the muscles and recharging of the circulation.
There are particular muscles that runners will want to pay attention to: here are some stretches to target those runner-sensitive areas.
After pounding the pavement, I like to reward my feet with some foot stretches (see video above!) that I did in my childhood dance classes, and now feel incomplete if I don’t incorporate them into my routine. They stretch the Achilles tendon (located above the heel), the Plantar Fascia muscle (your arch), the top of your foot, your toes, and the outer foot edge called the lateral malleolus. The Achilles tendon is especially important, as it’s a common spot for injuries amongst runners.
It’s important to keep your feet limber because the muscles starting in your feet extend to your knees and hips. In addition, I find these foot stretches to be strangely relaxing, rather like giving yourself a reflexology massage.
Calf muscles; gastrocnemius and soleus muscles
Find a stair or tilted surface. Put one foot back with a straight leg and touch your heel to the ground. The calf and hamstring muscles connect behind your knee, so the straight leg stretch does double duty stretching them both.
For the soleus muscle, stay in this position but bend the knee. This stretch you’ll especially be needing if you’ve started dabbling in barefoot running, which puts a heck of a lot more emphasis on the calf muscle than what most people are used to.
Over the Head and Across the Body Arm Stretch
Some runners have bad posture and stoop their shoulders while running. These stretches restore and maintain a wider range of motion in your shoulders.
Pull your arm across your chest. Feel the stretch in the shoulder and upper arm. Next raise your arm to the sky and bend the elbow to dip your arm behind your head. Feel the stretch in your shoulder and triceps.
This is an extended lunge, a pose we hold in yoga that my teachers often call the Runner’s lunge. Get into a basic lunge position, allowing your hips to sink as low as they will go. Tip-toe the front foot out away from your center, and lower your upper body down. Aim to get the forearms (and one day your head!) flat on the ground. You should feel the stretch where your leg connects to your gluteus maximus, and the outside of the hip. Many injuries stem from tight hips, so this stretch is one to work on.
If you’re particularly flexible in the knee you can try this pose: start out kneeling then move your legs apart to touch your bum to the ground. Let your legs below the knees splay out and bend backwards as far as you can go. It looks very impressive!
Quadracep and Knee
Grab the foot behind your bottom and hold to feel a stretch in your quad. And as long as you’re back there, it doesn’t hurt to wiggle your knee around a bit. People may wince at the thought, but if you’re very gentle and make only minute movements, pulling the foot to one side and the other of the leg can encourage knee flexibility.
Face a wall, any wall, but preferably not a window. Bend down and touch your toes, then inch forward until your back presses against the wall. You can use the wall to scoot your back further and further down, always elongating from the lower back. I have to constantly remind myself to relax my back and leg muscles while doing this stretch - it's so easy to tense up!
Legs up the Wall
It's not really a stretch, but this is still part of my post workout routine. Lay with your back flat on the ground and your bottom touching the wall. Swing your legs up and let them fully relax. Feel how cool it is to have the muscles pulled by gravity in the opposite direction.
After spending time in a pose with legs raised above your heart you may notice that your head feels clearer and your body fresher - that's because it improves circulation. It does NOT remove lactic acid from the legs, which is a common misconception.
My yoga teacher also informs her students that inversion poses (in which the lower body is lifted above the upper) is also supposed to stimulate the thyroid gland and boost your metabolism.
Does stretching actually help?
Stretching is a ritual for many runners. However the experts tell us that studies conclude that: stretching does not prevent injuries, stretching before running is in fact deleterious to one's performance, and stretching after running has no effect.
Though I do not doubt the validity of the studies, my own personal experience makes those conclusions hard for me to believe. Perhaps it is entirely psychological, but I truly feel that a post stretch leaves me feeling more refreshed and ready for my next run sooner. In the end, each runner should listen to their body to decide whether they need to stretch. All I know is, it feels so darn good!