Every runner and likely every athlete has been led down the road of “stretching” to prevent injury, better performance, work out an injury, improve recovery, and many other aspects to training. Stretching is simply the act to lengthen and elongate soft tissues muscles and tissues.
- Did you know that a muscle can elongate up to 1.6x it’s normal length?
- While muscles can ‘stretch’, ligaments & tendons do not.
- A tight muscle can lead to acute injury and/or improper running form (biomechanically or functionally out of balance.)
- Shortened muscles do not lend to highest efficiency.
- Gives body better training setup - Recovers from workouts more quickly
- For most, it just feels good.
It should be noted that stretching is not for everybody. There are even studies and viewpoints that go against stretching. I’ve known and seen the fastest of runners and coaches completely disregard stretching and do just fine. Many, however, will benefit from stretching . . . when done properly.
When & How to Stretch?
How you stretch depends on the goal of your stretch routine, the time of day and whether it’s before or after a workout.
The word “Stretching” should be used loosely (pun intended) as the goal is to get the blood flowing, muscles warmed up and loosened through their range of motion which is good for performance and proper form.
- Promotes Blood Flow
- Warms muscle fibers & soft tissues
- Lengthens soft tissues over range of motion
- Do not “Stretch” cold muscles.
Most pre-workout stretching is done 15-60 minutes before exercise. Some, me included, will do a pre warm-up routine early in the morning, an hour or two before a long run, and supplement it with a pre-run stretch/warm-up 5-10 minutes before departure.
Your muscles will naturally tighten up after a run and the amount usually dependent on the length of workout, intensity and your own body’s propensity to “tighten” up.
- Lengthens muscle fibers
- Flushes out waste products
- Smoothes Micro lesions & fibers to promote rebuilding & healing.
Stretching immediately after a workout should be avoided. A fatigued muscle does not have the capability to protect itself and in fact, injury can occur. I have seen runners actually strain muscles while stretching too much (and likely, too soon after workout)
- Within 15-60 minutes of workout – Light Dynamic Movements, more of a cool-down routine
- Between 1-4 hours – can perform a deeper “stretch” based routine.
- Between 4-12 hours – go for round two and do another stretch routine.
Types of Stretching
There are numerous types of stretching and while there are a few different good types, it’s generally recommended that the old style of bouncing (Ballistic) is totally not recommended.
- Ballistic – Bouncing. BAD! Never recommended
- Static - Holding for 10-30 seconds. Okay, but not most effective.
- Active Isolated – Dynamically stretching an isolated muscle. Most effective.
Active Isolated (AI) Stretching Technique
Our recent “stretching” clinic covered a specific type of stretching called “Active Isolated” (AI) stretching. It was developed in the mid 1990’s from Jim and Phil Wharton who are widely known exercise physiologists. They do regular articles in Runners World and Running Times magazines and you will see them at many big marathons, races and endurance community events.
Taken from some of the reference articles below, in a nutshell, AI Stretching falls somewhere between the slow, static, yoga-like stretches most runners practice (sometimes) before or after they run and the ballistic leg swings and kicks elite athletes are often seen performing before they compete.
The underlying theory behind A.I. is that if a muscle is stretched too far, too fast, or for too long, it elicits a protective action known as the myotatic reflex, causing it to automatically and ballisticly recoil in an attempt to prevent the muscle from tearing. This occurs about three seconds into a stretch. Therefore, A.I. holds a stretch for only a second or two, before the reflex kicks in, then relax and repeat 8-12 times.
It is NOT a “bounce”. If you feel “bouncing”, then you’re doing them too quickly and uncontrolled. (See videos for proper form and pace/rate) The target muscle is stretched gently until a slight “tug” or “pull” is felt (Not pain, that’s too much!!) After a few repetitions, the muscles exhibit a greater range of motion over the course of each set. After days and even weeks, you will notice a greater flexibility overall.
A Relaxed Muscle is a Happy Muscle
A relaxed muscle is stretched most effectively when relaxed. (It’s also why the “standing up” methods are not referenced here.) Therefore, most of them are done lying down. The other key to A.I. is to contract the opposing muscles to allow the target muscle to relax. For example, when stretching the hamstrings, the quadriceps muscles on the front of the leg are contracted, relaxing the hamstrings and making them more susceptible to stretching. A runner would lie on his back, lift his leg by using the muscles on the front of the leg, then stretch the hamstring by lightly pulling the leg back to the point of tightness for two seconds, then releasing. See some of the reference videos below for examples.
Assist with that Rope or Strap
This brings up the "assisted" aspect of A.I. The muscle is coaxed through its last few degrees of motion either by a partner, or more commonly, by the use of a length of rope, towel, strap or even an old T-shirt that is wrapped around the foot or leg in various ways depending on the direction of the stretch.
Benefits of AI technique:
- Can be done both as a Warm-up Routine and a Post Workout Stretch
- Can be done “cold” or in the morning – though must be even more “gentle” and relaxed.
- Good for warming up – repetitions act as blood pumping action. An abbreviated routine can be done.
- Focus on a particular muscle group if having problems in that area.
The AI Technique
- Each stretch is done through Motion and Movement (Active).
- Stretches one (1) muscle group at a time (Isolated)
- Lower extremity stretches are done mostly on floor/lying positions – this relaxes the muscles
- Actively contracts the opposite muscle – this relaxes stretching muscle
- Can be done with a partner, or by oneself (with strap, rope or long towel)
- Motion is controlled and gentle. 3 seconds per rep. “Stretch – 2 – 3 – Release”
- Repeat, 8-12 times per muscle (can be shortened down to 5 if time is of essence, more for warm-up routines, etc.)
Nursing a Rough Spot & Consistency
If you have a recovering injury or muscle pull and you’ve determined or been told that a stretching routine will help it’s recovery, plan on focusing on that area more than usual.
- Find the stretches that work best and develop a routine
- May have to do 1-3 times per day. Your muscles will retract to pre-stretch length soon enough. Best to repeat on a regular basis and over time (days, weeks, months) your overall flexibility will improve.
- Don’t forget the rest of your body, and be sure to balance everything out (don’t stretch only your left hamstring w/o the right.
Like most everything else, stretching takes practice to ensure your utilizing proper form, not over-stretching and working it into your routine.
If you search “Active Isolated Stretching” you will find a plethora of resources, articles, and videos. Jim & Phil Wharton themselves:
Some decent videos and articles showing the concept of the AI method.
- Calves: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oS6nD1cfaiA
- from RW by Jim & Phil: http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-241-287--8969-0,00.html
- Hamstrings: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2c3Fujsr8EM
- Hamstrings w/ additional advanced turns: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tVWsSoI_ro
- Quads: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go_z5wlmj9Q
Stretching in general: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130509347