Posted by: thehungryrunner | May 10, 2011

Runners: Are you stretching just once after a run? Well THERE’S your problem!

I’m borrowing one of my favorite one-liners from the show Mythbusters to underscore a common mistake made when stretching:  going through your stretches only once after a run.

You might wonder why this is a mistake.  Shouldn’t one time through be enough?  Not usually, it turns out.  Remember, the goal of stretching is to either help your body become more flexible, or at the very least, to retain the flexibility you already have.  This presents a challenge any time of the day, whether first thing in the morning or during a lunchtime breather or after a long day of work.  But it becomes a particular hurdle (sorry, pun intended) for runners, as anyone who’s gone for a long run or speed session or even just an easy weekend jaunt can attest to the tightness often felt afterwards in the hamstrings, calves and hips.  The trick is, in order to stretch effectively, you now have to help those muscles relax their grip and extend back to their full range — maybe even improve upon it.  This rarely happens from one quick pass-through of a stretch.  Think of it:  If a workout of any kind was successful, in that it provided the stimulous to increase the strength and/or endurance of muscles, then it stands to reason that those muscles aren’t going to release and surrender to a stretch immediately.  And short-cutting your stretching isn’t just a long-term risk; it can often be felt immediately.  For example, how does your body feel in that initial hour following a run?  Refreshed and loose?  Or are you limping around with tightness or soreness, or worse, starting your next run still stiff from the previous one?

Bottom line:  If you’re a runner and you’re invested in staying so for the long haul, what you need is a step-down strategy that gradually helps your muscles safely retain their flexibility and recover fully from the demands of each run.  Luckily, the process to accomplish this is simple:  After your workout, you simply go through each of your stretches at least 4-5 times.  Let’s call them “rounds.”  Here’s how a good progression of Rounds 1-5 might look:

  • Round 1:  The Introduction.  Light stretch, not held for very long, about 5-10 seconds.  Consider this an opener of sorts, a chance for your muscles to get acquainted with the stretch.  If the stretch is unilateral (one side at a time), do both sides before going on to the next round.
  • Round 2:  Adding the Breath.  Slightly longer hold, about 10-15 seconds, adding deep breaths to help the muscle(s) start to relax.
  • Round 3:  Honing in on “That” Muscle. Longer hold, about 20 seconds, paying close attention to form, and tweaking it to really hone in on “that” muscle.  You know what I mean — the muscle that’s feeling the stretch enough that your body is trying to alter its form to avoid that stretch.  It’s a good bet that the muscle that feels the stretch the most…is the muscle that NEEDS it the most!  That said, stay tuned to your body’s comfort zone; back off if there’s pain.
  • Round 4:  Further Elongation and Muscle Relaxation.  Here is where the pedal hits the medal:  Hopefully you’re able to elongate your muscle notably further than in Round 1, but whether or not this is true, now is the longest hold yet, about 20-30 seconds.  As you hold, scan your body up and down, checking your form, letting your breath move in and out deeply yet easily, and concentrating on relaxing your muscles AND your mind, since your brain and muscles are in extricably linked by way of your nervous system.
  • Round 5:  Bonus Round.  If Rounds 1-4 weren’t enough to do the trick, you can either give it one more round OR perform a different, but related, stretch.  Sometimes this is all the body needs to “finish” the flexibility and recovery process.

Yes, this added measure will extend the time invested in your workouts, but so too does your post-run shower, your pre- and post-run sports nutrition, and logging your runs, and you wouldn’t think of skipping out on those, would you?  (I surely hope that especially holds true for the shower.)  Every component of training serves its own vital purpose; it’s been my experience that honoring the purpose of high-quality stretching is well worth the real estate it occupies in your busy schedule!

Note/reminder:  None of this should be attempted without consulting your doctor first, and you should stop if you feel any pain. 



  1. Very timely post for me. Thanks for posting it. I am needing to incorporate more stretching and now am armed with the info.

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