Stretching is a fundamental way to improve your overall health and fitness. By incorporating a regular flexibility program into your exercise routine you will:
- improve circulation
- improve range of motion
- improve posture
- decrease joint stiffness
- decrease muscle tension
- improve performance (there is limited evidence to support this)
- improve your ability to relax
- allow time for mental training, such as visualization
A complete stretching routine can take as little as 10 minutes. The best time to stretch is after you have warmed up and the muscles are warm. The best time to perform your flexibility routine is after exercise. This is when the muscle is the warmest and when you can use the relaxation. Focus on stretching the muscles you use the most during your specific exercise or sport.
Proper Stretching Technique
- Perform balanced stretching. This means you should always stretch the muscles on both sides of your body evenly. Don’t stretch one side more than the other side.
- Avoid over-stretching. Never stretch to the point of pain or discomfort. You will feel slight tension or a pull on the muscle at the peak of the stretch.
- Go slow! Always stretch slowly and evenly. Hold the stretch for about fifteen seconds and release slowly as well.
- Never bounce or jerk while stretching. This can cause injury as a muscle is pushed beyond it’s ability. All stretches should be smooth, and slow.
- Don't forget to breathe. Flexibility exercises should be relaxing. Deep easy, even breathing is key to relaxation. Never hold your breath while you stretch.
Hamstrings Stretch Sit on the floor with one leg straight in front of you and the other leg bent (with the sole of the foot touching the inside thigh of the outstretched leg). Keep your back straight and lean forward from the hips. Slide your arms forward toward your outstretched foot. Stop when you feel a pull in the hamstring. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat with the other leg extended.
Hip Flexor - Psoas Stretch Lie on your back. Bend your left leg and bring it toward you. Grasp your left knee gently with your right hand and pull it slightly down and to the right until you feel a stretch. Turn your head to the left. Your right leg should stay flat on the floor. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Low back: Lay flat on the floor with knees bent. Use your hands to pull them toward your chest. Lift your head and shoulders off the floor until your head is approximately six inches from your knees. Cross your ankles. Gently rock yourself back and forth in this position for 30 seconds.
Standing Quad Stretch Lie on your right side with your right knee bent at a 90-degree angle. Bend your left leg and hold onto the ankle with your left hand. Gently pull your left heel in toward the left side of your butt. As soon as you feel a stretch in your left quad, slowly lower your left knee toward the floor behind your right knee. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Standing Calf Stretch Stand an arm's length away from a wall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Slide the left foot back approximately 18 inches, keeping the knee straight and both heels flat on the floor. Bend your right knee and slowly move your pelvis forward until you feel a stretch in the calf and Achilles of the left leg. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
- Know your sport.
Whether you're in the gym, on the track, or anywhere else, it's important to know what your workout will involve. Understanding which muscles will be worked is the only way to know how to best stretch out.
- Focus on those muscles.
While a good overall routine is helpful, your emphasis should be on the muscles that will be most heavily involved in your workout.
- Warm up before stretching.
Just some easy walking or a light jog will be sufficient to warm up your muscles, but it will make the stretching session much more valuable.
- Begin slowly.
You don't need to touch your toes right away: Begin slowly and push yourself as your muscles loosen up. Stretching too much, too soon can be painful and potentially harmful.
- Hold the stretch.
Once you feel your muscles reaching their limit, hold the position for a count of 10. Then push yourself a little further and hold again for a count of 10.
- Don't rush your stretching routine.
If you're going to have to cut your workout short, don't skip or shorten the stretching. This is more important than an extra set of reps or another half mile.
- Do it again.
Once you're finished working out, stretch again. Not only is it an excellent way to cool down from your workout, but this is the time that you will improve your flexibility the most.
- Don't bounce!
You will get the best stretch, and prevent injuries if you avoid bouncing. Instead, hold the stretch, and feel a constant pull in the muscles.
- Stretch both sides.
Many people have a tendency to under-stretch the 'healthy' side after an injury. Use the same stretches, for the same amount of time, for both sides of your body.
- Get professional help.
Gym trainers, physical therapists, exercise instructors will all know great ways to stretch. When you're getting started, have someone knowledgeable watch your routine and offer their suggestions.
Williford, HN, et al. "Evaluation of warm-up for improvement in flexibility" Am. J. Sports Med., Jul 1986; 14: 316 - 319.
There's an endless number of runners who seem perfectly able to squeeze in many hours of running every week but who just don't seem to have the time to stretch for five or ten minutes before and after. Find the time.
Sure, it's not as fun as hitting the road, and the benefits may not be as immediately obvious. But a good and consistent stretching program can save you a lot of trouble and keep you running when you might otherwise become injured. Along with training gently and choosing the right shoes, stretching is the most important thing you can do to protect your body from the rigors of the road. You'll also find that the benefits of stretching include reduced muscle soreness after running and even better athletic performance.
That said, you should be careful about how you stretch. If not done properly, stretching can actually cause injury rather than prevent it. Rule number one in stretching: do not bounce. It's a common mistake, but bouncing risks pulling or tearing the muscle you're trying to stretch and relax. Muscles must be stretched gradually. If a stretch is applied too quickly, the muscle responds with a strong contraction, increasing tension. If the stretch is applied slowly, however, this contraction reflex is avoided, muscle tension falls, and you may stretch the muscle further. The lesson here: stretch slowly and hold the stretch for 30 to 40 seconds.
Do not stretch beyond the point where you begin to feel tightness in the muscle. Do not push through muscle resistance, and never stretch to the point of discomfort or pain.
Build stretching into your regular schedule both before and after your daily run -- it's best to do your pre-run stretching after a gentle warmup run of five or ten minutes, since "warm" muscles stretch more easily.
For a model stretching program, try out the 12 stretches recommended below. If you must abbreviate the routine, at least do the three types of wall pushup, the hamstring stretch, the heel-to-buttock stretch, and the groin stretch.
Repeat each stretch two or three times:
Stand about three feet from a wall, feet at shoulder width and flat on the ground. Put your hands on the wall with your arms straight for support. Lean your hips forward and bend your knees slightly to stretch your calves.
2. Wall Pushup #2
From the previous position, bend forward to lower your body to waist height. Bring one foot forward with your knee slightly bent. Lift the toes of the front foot to stretch the muscle under the calf. Stretch both legs.
3. Wall Pushup #3
Put your feet together, rocking back on your heels with your hands on the wall and your arms straight to form a jackknife with your body. This stretches your hips, shoulders, and lower back.
4. Back Scratch
Grab your elbow with the opposite hand and gently push the elbow up and across your body until your hand reaches down to "scratch" your back. Gently push on your elbow to guide your hand down your back as far as it will comfortably go, stretching your triceps and shoulders. Stretch both arms.
Lie down with one leg straight up in the air, the other bent with foot flat on the ground. Loop a towel over the arch of the lifted foot, and gently pull on the towel as you push against it with your foot. Push only to the point where your muscles contract. Stretch both legs.
6. Quadriceps Stretch
Kneel on your knees (without resting back on your heels). Lean back with your body erect and your arms to the side. Hold for 15 seconds.
Stand on one foot, with one hand on a wall for balance. Hold the other foot with the opposite hand and raise the heel of the lifted foot to the buttocks (or as close as comfortably possible), stretching your quadriceps. Keep your body upright throughout. Change legs and repeat.
Sit on the ground with your legs crossed. Lift your right leg and cross it over the left, which should remain bent. Hug the right leg to your chest and twist the trunk of your body to look over your right shoulder. Change legs and repeat (i.e. looking over your left shoulder).
Lie on your side with both legs bent in running position. Bring the bottom leg toward your chest and then bring the top one back toward your buttocks, so that the running position of your legs is exaggerated as possible. Hold for 30 seconds then flip sides and repeat.
Lie on your back with your knees bent. Hug your shins to your chest to stretch your hamstrings and lower back.
Lie on your back and, with your feet flat on the ground, lift your hips up until your body forms a flat plane. Repeat this one ten times for 30 seconds each to stretch your quads and lower back.
Seated, put the soles of your feet together. With your elbows on the inside of your knees, gradually lean forward and gently press your knees toward the ground.