Stretching – Flexibility and Mobility

Most runners know that they should be stretching and mobilising muscles on a regular basis. Despite knowing this, many don’t do it, are not sure what to do or when to do it or even really why they are doing it.

Runners who just run and ignore stretching, mobility, strength work and forms of cross training are more likely to become tight in some muscle areas and weak in others.

Tightness in key muscles such as hamstring and glutes requires those muscles to work harder to find their full range of movement, which in turn puts more strain and load through those muscles, risking injury.

Retaining flexibility and mobility in your joints so they can move in their full range of movement is important for runners to reduce the risk of injury and improve running form and efficiency.

  • Flexibility vs. Mobility – These two words are often misunderstood and used interchangeably but actually mean something quite different. Flexibility is defined as “the ability of a muscle or muscle groups to lengthen passively through a range of motion”, whereas mobility is the “ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion”. So mobility comes from not only the muscles stretching over a joint but also how far the joint moves within the joint capsule. Mobility also requires motor control within the nervous system. This is where dynamic stretches and regular mobility exercises trump static stretches every time. Regular drills and dynamic stretches help to embed running patterns and efficient range of movement through joints in a way static stretching will not.
  • Dynamic Stretches – Before any hard training session or race, 10-15 minutes of dynamic stretches or ‘running drills’ are the best way to warm up muscles. Never do static stretches before you run. Holding a cold muscle in a static stretch is more likely to damage and tear muscle fibres and will certainly not aid performance.
  • Static Stretches – After your run or race is the time to focus on static stretching to alleviate some of the post session tightness you will likely feel in your key muscle groups. But, more pain is not more gain! Your muscles are fatigued and at risk of damage if you force the stretch too far. Just stretch the muscle to the point where you can feel the start of the stretch sensation and hold there for 15-20 seconds. If at this point you feel the tightness reduce, then extend the range for a further 45 seconds. You don’t need to be biting down on your lip to get the benefit. Be sure to balance out stretches across opposing muscle groups. If you stretch your hamstrings, also stretch your quads.
  • Injured Muscles – If you have a muscle that hurts to stretch even at a short range of movement, then don’t try to stretch it. If a muscle is feeling very painful or doesn’t seem to respond to static stretching then this is more likely to be a muscle that is weak or damaged and needs other rehab protocols. Torn muscle fibres may need a period of rest and cold therapy, then starting to do light loading and strengthening before any static stretching should be reintroduced.
  • Frequency – Maintaining lasting mobility and flexibility comes from building stretching into your day, every day. Just doing a few stretches after a run is not going to cut it. Static stretches will help with post training soreness but are in many ways like a massage, the feeling or release and relaxation can be short lived as the lengthening of muscle fibres slowly wears off. Dynamic stretches and mobility exercises however, have the benefit of activating and thereby strengthening muscles fibres and increasing range of movement in joints, which will aid longer-term improvements in mobility. Try to find time each day for a few minutes to perform some dynamic stretches and mobility exercises to maintain and improve joint range of movement through your spine, hips and ankles.

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