Running stretches are the Rodney Dangerfield of fitness. While cardio and weight lifting get lots of respect, most people tend to relegate flexibility exercises to the low priority list in their workouts, squeezing them in if they remember but most of the time just letting them slide.
That’s easy to understand—the benefits of stretching aren’t quite as easy to see and feel as hoisting a dumbbell or breaking a sweat on a morning run. And if you’re naturally inflexible like me, it’s even easier to forget stretching because it can be about as fun as paying bills.
On top of that, not all experts agree that stretching is such a great thing. In fact, some exercise guru-types think stretching won’t keep you from getting injured, or even keep your muscles from aching.
So why take the time to stretch? There are lots of good reasons. Running stretches—or any stretches for that matter—will help relieve stress and improve your circulation. You’ll also gain better balance and coordination—a good thing whether you’re a runner or not. Also, flexibility is an important component of overall fitness. If your flexibility is limited, so is your “range of motion”—that comfortable area in which your muscles and joints can roam so that you can do everything from hoist the groceries out of the car to follow through on your tee shots.
Running stretches are also a great way to cool down after a run—they give you a few minutes to let your body and mind relax from the rigorous workout you just went through. As your heart rate and perspiration slows, you’ll find your mind glowing in the accomplishment of your goal—a successfully completed run.
So make running stretches a part of your beginner running program, and keep these important tips in mind.
Stretch after Warm-up
Stretching muscles that are cold can lead to injury, according to the American Council on Exercise. So take five to 10 minutes to do a low-intensity activity, they recommend, like easy walking while swinging your arms in wide circles. Better yet, do most of your stretching after your workout, when your muscles are even more warmed up and supple.
Don't Make It Hurt
Only hold the stretch to a point of mild discomfort, for 10 to 30 seconds. If it hurts, back off. In fact, the pain could act as a signal to your body to tighten the exact body part you’re attempting to stretch because it’s trying to protect itself from injury. Also, you’ll see lots of folks bouncing at the tail end of a stretch. But all that bobbing up and down can lead to injury, so don’t do it.
Know Your Limits
This isn’t a competition, so don’t get any preconceived ideas about how far you should be able to stretch—flexibility varies by the individual, and even from joint to joint in your own body. And if you have a history of, say, knee problems, use caution when doing stretches that involve that area.
Keep Breathing and Relax
Don’t hold your breath during the stretch, and try to avoid tensing any parts of your body—for example, the jaw, shoulders, hands or feet.
Fit It in
If you don’t do running stretches as part of your workout, try some flexibility moves the first thing in the morning before you get up, recommends the American Council on Exercise. Or schedule a yoga or tai chi class to help motivate you to stay with your flexibility routine.