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What’s The Right Way To Stretch?

Photo by StretchLab

Click through to the second page to see examples of how to perform some of the stretches described below.

Are You Stretching Correctly?

It’s widely accepted that stretching will help you increase flexibility and prevent injuries. But have runners been stretching incorrectly all along? The old concept of the warm-up and cool-down stretching may in fact hurt your run. It’s essential to know the difference between static and dynamic stretching to prevent injuries and increase flexibility the right way.

To truly understand the benefits of stretching we need to understand why the body loses flexibility. D.R. Ebner, a physical therapist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center explains, “First, realize that flexibility is mostly controlled by our brain. Our brain controls how much a certain joint or muscle is going to feel comfortable moving during a stretch.” When you get an increase in flexibility after a static or dynamic stretch, it is not because the physical components of the muscle changed and became longer—it’s because, while performing that stretch, the brain and associated nerves have relaxed the muscle and allowed an increase in range of motion (ROM).

“A common reason for lack of flexibility can be related to a lack of strength and stability from the associated muscles which control the new ROM,” Ebner says. “An example of this is someone who cannot touch their toes while standing, but can touch them when they sit down. The only difference between the two positions is that when standing there is a greater need to balance and stabilize against gravity compared to sitting, which eliminates balance and the effect of gravity.”

The big difference between dynamic and static stretching is that dynamic stretching involves movement while static is stationary. Brad Walker, director of education at StretchLab, says, “I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is assuming that one type of stretching is better than another. That’s just not the case; each type of stretching has its own advantages and disadvantages.”

Combining dynamic and static stretching to your training routine can help you become a stronger runner, but it’s how you use stretching that will help your performance, flexibility and injury prevention. However, the time you spend warming up and cooling down is not the right time to try improving your flexibility.

“The idea behind a warm-up is just to prepare your body for the activity that it’s going to be doing,” Walker says. “Part of that is maximizing your current range of motion, but it’s certainly not trying to extend or further your flexibility. I think that’s where a lot of people go wrong. They try and improve their flexibility as part of the warm-up, but that could be a mistake.” Meanwhile, cool-downs should simply be opportunities to allow your body to come back to a pre-exercise level.

Dynamic Stretching

A great time to apply dynamic stretching is right before a run, to ensure all the joints involved with running have gone through a full ROM to avoid poor running mechanics. “When doing dynamic stretching, all joints should move through full ROM, increase core temperature and start to get the blood pumping,” Ebner says.

Ebner suggests that runners try the following dynamic stretches, each performed for one minute:

  • Forward standing leg swings
  • Lateral standing leg swings
  • Spiderman pushups

Static Stretching

Your cool-down is the opportune time to use static stretching. “Typically the muscles will tighten up during a workout, whether it’s in the gym or on a run or on a bike ride,” Walker explains. “The muscles will contract, so all you want to do with the cool-down is just elongate those muscles to their natural, normal range of motion.” You don’t want to push the stretches or try to extend your flexibility because the muscles are tired and fatigued, and pushing them further can lead to injury.

Walker suggests the following static stretches, each performed for 30 seconds:

  • Standing high-leg bent knee hamstring stretch
  • Standing toe-up hamstring stretch
  • Kneeling quad stretch
  • Standing toe-up Achilles stretch

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching

The other type of stretching that’s good for improving range of motion is called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). “It’s a type of stretching that involves a contraction as well as a stretch. What happens is you get into the stretch position, you contract that stretching muscle against the stretch and then relax the muscle,” Walker explains.

It’s as simple as push and pull. You can use a towel or strap to help you pull your muscle while also pushing against it. Each time you gently pull forward, you should be able to see a small increase in flexibility.

PNF stretching helps the body bend, reach and twist further. It also allows the limb or the body to move further before the muscle feels tension. By elongating the muscle in question, you’re allowing your body to move further before a potential injury can occur.

Stretching To Improve Flexibility

If you want to improve your flexibility or range of motion, Walker explains that there are two times that are most beneficial for doing so. “One is about two to three hours after your work out; that’s typically very effective in improving your range of motion.”

The other recommended time to stretch is right before going to bed. “That elongated or stretched muscle is the last thing your body remembers before going to sleep,” Walker says. “Sleep allows you to recover and restore those muscles in that elongated position.” He recommends stretching for five to 10 minutes about 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, holding static stretch positions for 40 seconds to a full minute as a way to relax your mind and muscles.

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Fara Rosenzweig

Fara Rosenzweig

Fara Rosenzweig is a writer, editor, and certified personal trainer. She got her first taste of the gym at age 14 and fell in love with the fitness crowd. After suffering a back injury her freshman year of college, she had to set her ballet slippers aside and rehab her back. That’s when she found her passion for teaching fitness and helping others challenge themselves. Her senior year of college she ran in her first 5K and traded her ballet slippers for the latest (and brightest) pair of running shoes. Fara loves talking health, sports and fitness with any one and everyone. Her love for storytelling earned her an Emmy Award and has been seen in many other publications, such as Refinery29, Active.com, MyFitnessPal and Health.