Running Stretches & Mobility Exercises
Why Running Stretches Are Important
Running stretches and mobility exercises are important to do to keep your muscles and tendons healthy. Done properly and at the right time, appropriate running stretches or mobilizations can prepare the muscles for a run or help them relax after a run. But if done incorrectly or at the wrong time, running stretches can increase your risk of injury or decrease your performance.
We use stretching to develop flexibility, which is defined as the normal extensibility of all soft tissues that allow a full range of motion of a joint. If our tissues are too tight the joint is restricted in its movement. This can put excessive stress on the joint and increase risk of injury.
It's also important to understand there are two major types of flexibility - active flexibility and passive flexibility.
Active flexibility is the ability to extend a muscle using the coordinated action of your muscles i.e. lifting your leg straight out in front of you without external support as seen in the photo to the right.
Active flexibility has a much greater impact on your running than passive flexibility. So focus more on developing your active flexibility to improve your running.
Passive flexibility uses your bodyweight, the support of your limbs or some external support to stretch a muscle. The stretch shown to the right passively stretches the back and shoulders.
For runners, excessive tightness in the hips and legs causes altered movement patterns putting inappropriate stress on the back, hips, knees and ankles which leads to injury. So having an adequate range of motion is vital to running injury free.
Tight muscles may not always lead to injury but they can decrease performance. A tight muscle has decreased range of motion which decreases its strength and power. Watch this short video which shows you how muscles contract.
If a muscle is too tight, it's in a shortened position so it cannot develop adequate power. Likewise if it's too long (i.e. too stretched out) it will not be as powerful either. Don't think you need to be as limber as a gymnast to run well. But you don't want to be wound too tight either.
Mechanisms Behind Running Stretches
When we stretch we want to focus on the muscles and fascia (a connective tissue); we do not want to stretch ligaments and other parts of the joint capsule that provide joint stability. Stretching these structures would weaken the joint.
Stretching increases flexibility by manipulating different soft tissue properties. It can work through primarily structural characteristics or through the nervous system.
Muscles and fascia have the structural ability to change shape by elongating. They can return to their original shape or if done properly they can maintain an elongated position.
Developing flexibility through the nervous system involves manipulating muscle receptors called muscle spindles and Golgi Tendon Organs (GTO's) which cause a muscle to relax or contract. To stretch a muscle you need to over-ride the stretch reflex. The video below is a simple explanation of the stretch reflex.
Controversy Around Stretching
There is a lot of controversy surrounding running stretches and when it's appropriate to do them. The research behind flexibility training shows conflicting results with some studies concluding that stretching is beneficial while others saying it doesn't help or can actually increase risk of injury.
Different Types of Running Stretches & Techniques
The confusion arises because different studies used different populations or different types of stretching techniques. It's important to understand there are different types of running stretches and each one is more appropriate at specific times.
Some running stretches are best to do before you run; others are better for after your runs. Let's take a quick look at some different types of stretches and techniques.
Static stretching is probably the best known and most popular running stretch technique. Simply defined, you pick a specific pose for a specific muscle and hold that pose for a certain length of time, usually 20 to 60 seconds. The picture to the right shows a common static quadricep stretch.
By holding a position for an extended time static running stretches overcome the stretch reflex. The muscle spindle relaxes allowing the muscle to elongate and take a new shape.
This type of stretching is best done after you run. If you do it before a run or workout your muscles are weaker and less able to protect themselves from injury so you won't run to your potential and you increase your risk of injury.
In some cases where injury is involved static stretching a muscle before a run or workout may be recommended. But your therapist or doctor will let you know if you need to do this.
Most common static stretches primarily develop passive flexibility.
This form of stretching uses movement to develop active flexibility. Whereas static stretching holds a position, dynamic stretching involves moving throughout a range of motion. The photo to the right shows me doing a dynamic hip and back stretch called a spider climb.
Dynamic stretching works primarily through nervous system mechanisms. You are not passively maintaining a stretch position but are actively using your muscles. The muscle contractions help over-ride the stretch reflex allowing a muscle to lengthen.
This type of stretching develops active flexibility and is what you want to do before you run or workout.
Dynamic stretching involves many different techniques.
- Full range of motion strength exercises. You may be surprised but doing strengthening exercises such as squats and lunges through a full range of motion is a form of dynamic stretching. These are very time efficient for runners since you develop strength and active flexibility at the same time.
- Contract-relax stretching. This form of dynamic stretching involves moving a joint through a range of motion by alternately contracting and relaxing muscles. This is sometimes mistakenly referred to as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. True PNF stretching is a specific movement pattern which I won't get into here. You can use various combination of muscle groups, contracting and relaxing, to elicit a stretch. The contraction period is usually short, 7 - 10 seconds, and not very strong. You don't want to over-contract a muscle.
- Mobilizations. These specific movement patterns stretch muscles and create proper range of motion in joints. Like all dynamic stretches you don't hold a particular pose for any length of time. Watch this video for a great hamstring mobilization exercise as an example of a mobilization type stretch.
Soft Tissue Rejuvenation
This is another form of flexibility work which isn't really stretching but can help your mobility. Soft tissue rejuvenation is actually a form of self-massage and is also called self-myofascial release or trigger point therapy. It releases tension in muscles by:
- Promoting blood flow to the muscle, delivering oxygen and nutrients and removing waste byproducts and toxins.
- Breaking down adhesions in the fascia and knots in the muscle.
- Manipulating muscle receptors to over-ride the stretch reflex helping the muscle to relax.
You can use your hands or use tools such as the Stick, a foam roller or small balls. In this photo I'm using the Stick to work on my shin muscles to help break up fascial adhesions and release excessive tension in the muscle.
Soft tissue rejuvenation is great to do after a run but it can also be done before a run if you are really restricted in specific muscles. Using the Stick or the foam roller on the calves before a run would be a good idea as this is one area which is tight in most runners.
Running Stretch Recommendations
Running stretches don't have to take a long time. Take the time to do 5 - 10 minutes of dynamic stretching and optionally some soft tissue rejuvenation before a run.
After your run, you can do some soft tissue rejuvenation and static stretching. Dynamic stretching can also be done. It doesn't have to take a long time, 5 - 10 minutes can be enough.
On a daily basis, it's a good idea for runners to do 5 - 10 minutes of dynamic running stretches and some soft tissue rejuvenation work. You'll get the biggest benefit from flexibility work if you're consistent with it and do it on a daily basis, especially for your tight spots.
Invest the time to do this and you'll run strong and run healthy.