To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

Static stretching has its place - just not before a run.When I ran track as a child, we were encouraged to stretch before we did our workout. By that I mean we sat on the ground and contorted our bodies into weird shapes presumably to loosen up our muscles and prevent injuries. But now, we are learning that kind of static stretching can actually impair performance by making your muscles less elastic and not as powerful.

As an adult, I didn’t think much about warming up or stretching before a run. Sometimes I would do it and sometimes I wouldn't. These days, however, I am more aware of the toll running and other exercise takes on my body. Consequently, I have become a big fan of dynamic stretching before - and even after - a run.

The benefit to these stretches is that they activate the muscle groups I am going to need when running (or swimming or biking or whatever activity I have planned that day). They also elevate my heartrate and help loosen up stiffness in my back, butt and legs. Dynamic stretching improves range of motion and increases flexibility as well.

What are some dynamic stretches? I like to incorporate high knees, butt kicks and “hurdles” where I swing my leg out to the side and down when I start my stretching routine. Regular skips, B skips and side skips are next followed by grapevine or carioca where you move sideways crossing your legs over one another. These sideways motions are important for runners who frequently only move linearly. Finally, I do leg swings – both back-and-forth and side-to-side.

There are plenty of other like exercises that can be incorporated into your warm-up based upon what you are doing in a given workout. For instance, if you are running stairs, try including some bounding drills to activate the muscles needed to propel you up and over each step.

The bottom line is by building in some time to do dynamic stretches before your workout, you will have more elasticity in your truly warmed-up muscles and thus should experience improved performance and reduced likelihood of injury. And that static stretching we learned back in the day? Try that after you’ve worked out. It is just the right way to cool down and treat your body well.