By Ramsay Wall
In many ways, stretching is a kind of final frontier—experts still don’t fully understand or agree on how much flexibility positively affects athletic performance. However, most experts do agree that stretching, especially after exercise, doesn’t hurt. Stretching helps to relax and elongate running muscles, increase range of motion in the muscles, and balance the body more generally. Remember never to stretch to the point of pain, ballistically (with bouncing motions), or in the area of a pulled muscle. Always keep joints soft and “breathing.” There are dozens of ways to stretch the muscles we use to run. Consider the following,
merely a few of many possibilities:
The quadriceps are muscles located in the front of the thigh. They are important
for lifting the knees when we run.
To stretch your quadriceps, stand on one leg and bend the other back, maintaining alignment knee to knee. Hold onto a stationary object for balance if you want or need to. Gently catch the foot in your hand and bring it towards your bum. Keep your hips forward, your tailbone down, and your spine long. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds. Do not to lean forward, as it decreases the effectiveness of the stretch. Release the foot, and repeat this stretch on the other side.
Unless your knees complain, you can also stretch your quadriceps by sitting in a kneeling position on your heels. Your knees should be about two fist-widths distance apart. As a bonus, you’ll stretch the tops of your feet. For some more flexible bodies, it is okay to lean back a little, placing the hands beyond the heels of the feet on either side.
The hamstrings are the muscles that run from just below the knee up into the buttocks. These muscles lift the lower leg and bend the knees after the quads have lifted them. Sprinters pull their hamstring muscles more than distance runners, but, as many elite runners of all distances have noted, tight hamstrings can limit your ability to run fast.
To stretch you hamstrings, stand on one leg and put the heel of the other leg on top of a stable object 2-3 feet high. A chair seat or a bench will work nicely here. Keep your hips level as you gently lengthen a flat (not flexed) back toward the propped leg. Keep a soft bend in the knees. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds. Repeat on other side.
The best way to do this exercise is not with your foot on a stool, but while lying on your back. Lie on your back, keeping it flat and your eyes focused upward. Grasp the back of one thigh with both of your hands and, with your leg bent, pull that thigh into a 90-degree position perpendicular to the floor. Then, slowly straighten your knee. After you’ve gotten used to doing this exercise, you can achieve a better stretch by pulling your thigh closer to your chest. Be very careful, and remember not to stretch aggressively.
To stretch your hips, stand on one leg, and, while holding onto something stable in front of you, place the other ankle across the thigh of the standing leg. Keep the foot that’s atop the thigh flexed to protect the knee joint. Gently sit back as if you’re sitting in a chair. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds. Release your ankle, and repeat on other side.
You can also stretch your hips lying down on your back. Lie on your back and cross your legs just as you might while sitting in a chair. Grasping the "under" leg with both hands, pull the knee toward your chest until you feel the stretch in your buttocks and hips. Keep the neck long and the face relaxed. Don’t forget to breathe.
IT Bands The IT band is a thick tendinous fascia that originates on the outside portion of the hip and extends to the lateral aspect of the knee. To stretch your IT bands, stand tall on one leg. Unweight the other leg and extend it straight behind you. Lean into the uninvolved (not standing) leg until you feel a gentle stretch in the IT band. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds, and breathe. Repeat on the other side.
The gastroc muscle ia located in the back of the calf. The calf muscles propel your leg across your grounded foot while running. To stretch your calves, lean against a wall or another stationary object, placing both palms against the object. Extend the leg you want to stretch back, several feet from the wall, keeping your heel firmly grounded to the floor. Flex your other leg about halfway between your back leg and the wall. Start with your back straight and gradually lunge forward until you feel an even stretch down the back of the calf. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds, and repeat on the other side. The soleus is the other major muscle in the calf, located in front of the gastroc.
The soleus plants the foot on the ground before the push off. Position yourself in a way similar to the gastroc stretch with your back straight and palms against the wall. This time, though, start in a "seated" position with your legs bent and your buttocks dropped. Gently lean into the wall until you feel the stretch in your lower calf. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
To stretch your shoulders, take hold of one hand by the wrist with the other hand. Guide the straight arm across your body and gently pull the wrist away from the midline. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds, and breathe deeply. Repeat on the other side.
To stretch your back and sides, stand with your feet hip-width distance apart. Reach your arms up overhead. Take hold of one wrist with the other hand. Stretch up and over, like you’re making your body a kind of crescent moon. Move up and over as if between two panes of glass. Don’t lean forward or backward. Hold this position for 20-30 seconds breathing deeply. Release, and repeat on the other side. To stretch your chest, take hold of your hands behind your back near your bum. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, and gently lift your hands away from your back. If you like, gaze upward, opening the throat.