Posted by: thehungryrunner | May 31, 2011

Additional tight calf and hamstring help: Pre-run stretches

It doesn’t take long, if you peruse this blog, to see a frequent theme of stretching and dealing with tight muscles.  There’s a reason for that, besides the obvious that it’s my business to help people stay active through regular stretching.  I fight muscle tightness just like everyone else, especially when it comes to my running!  I must tell you, I still sometimes feel cranky about this.  After all, I’m the Flexibility Coach, and a contortionist at that!  I shouldn’t have to deal with such mortal struggles as tight hammies, right?

Ha!  Nice try, stretch girl!  But the good news about my own personal flexibility hurdles, is that they keep me experimenting, to find and tweak those methods and stretches that prove the most effective, then pass them along to my members, clients, and readers of this blog.  So at least my struggles are not for naught.  At least, that’s what I tell myself on those days when I find myself confronting yet another reminder that I’m not just a Hungry Runner, I’m an Over 40 Runner — and my muscles did get the memo, bleh!

Anyway, my latest experiment has been to take up that ultimate alleged no-no of stretching BEFORE my run, and not just afterward.  Now mind you, I’ve been advocating for this strategy for years, albeit acknowledging that stretching before vigorous exercise can be tricky, as it serves a different purpose than the stretches that come after the vigorous exercise.  When you stretch afterward, you’re primary seeking to help your muscles recover and regain their full length (and possibly even improve upon it), whereas stretching before a workout is more about establishing the full range you already have, but without causing the muscles and their nerves to relax too much.  Relaxation of nerve stimulation is not what you want before a workout; on the contrary, you want the opposite, to get those nerves and muscles all fired up and ready to go, especially since maximum recruitment and readiness will reduce the chance of over-depending on an incomplete range of muscles, which could put them under undo duress.  But you also want your muscles to be ready to move through their full range, for the same reason:  If you’re going into the workout without waking up that range, you’ll be more apt to move in an altered, compensated fashion, putting excess stress on certain muscles and joints, and affecting the quality of your performance.

With that need in mind, I’ve been determined to find that balance:  get some stretches going beforehand, yet in a way that doesn’t leave my body and mind feeling more ready for zen meditation than an energetic 4-miler.  In particular, my goal has centered around my hamstrings and calf muscles, since these are usually the muscles that are screaming the loudest for stretches by the end of my longer runs.

So here’s what seems to be working:  Just as I’ve been advocating, dynamic stretches that aren’t held for very long are better than long-held static stretches.  But here’s what I’ve added that I want to pass along:  I start with a few light stretches and movements at the stairs, such as cat stretches, foot-on-stairs lunges, easy forward bends (using the railings to help keep the stretches light), and single-leg heel drops to stretch my calves.  I then do some light jogs in a small area, maybe 50 feet or so back and forth, but more like a spring:  boing, boing boing.  A runner friend of mine would call this a “pogo” jog, i.e. like you’re jumping on a pogo stick.  I also do some high-knee jogs in place, and then a few bounding jogs.  The idea, obviously, is to exaggerate my run gait in every way so as to wake up all the circuits and get the full range of motion going.  I THEN return to those initial stretches, holding for just a tiny bit longer and trying to relax my muscles just enough to feel them open up from before.

I still stretch at the end of my run, but I can’t tell you what a difference this has made!  Something about that added jog warm-up and the repeated round of stretches really seems to relax and set my form; I run with much better quality in those initial 10-15 minutes than I normally do, and by the end of the run, my legs feel less tight and fatigued.  The end-of-run stretches go better, too. 

So if you’ve added stretches to your running program and are still struggling with muscle tightness, consider those opening stretches and warm-up.  Yes, it takes more time and frankly annoys me as when I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go.  But I’m finding it well worth the added time and effort.

Evamarie Pilipuf is a stretching consultant based in southern California, and the owner/operator of www.TheFlexibilityCoach.com, a membership site featuring her collection of online audio and video instruction.  

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