by Dr Grant Matkovitch
Running training, especially when increasing mileage, adds a lot of stress to your muscles.
When a muscle becomes fatigued it becomes shorter. As the shortened muscle gets used over and over it becomes more shortened. Until the muscle becomes so shortened that the runner feels the ‘tight’ muscle, which feels weak, painful and limited in its movement. The muscle may even start cramping.
To stop the effects of tight muscles it is important to stretch as stretching helps lengthen the shortened muscle back to its normal length.
There is a lot of conflicting information about stretching (When to stretch, how to stretch). This has made it confusing on when and how to stretch.
As a specific guideline: Should you stretch?
Yes, it is a good idea to stretch, because as mentioned earlier, after months of training your muscles are very likely fatigued and would benefit from regular stretching, even if you can’t feel the tight muscle yet, they are there!
Which muscles should you stretch?
The best muscles to stretch are the Gluteus muscles (Max, Min and Med) otherwise known as your butt muscles, your hamstrings (back of the thigh), your quadriceps muscle (front of your thigh) and calf muscles.
How should you stretch?
‘Static’ stretches are the best. This means finding the position where you can feel the muscle stretching and holding that position. When you feel the stretch in the muscle it should be a pleasant sensation. It should have that “nice” pain sensation if it’s more than slightly uncomfortable then back off on the amount of stretch.
Unfortunately the idea “no pain, no gain” does not apply with stretching as if it’s too painful you might be aggravating the muscle and causing damage. Do not bounce in the stretch position (known as ballistic stretching) as this can badly damage the muscle!
How long and often should you stretch for?
Keep the stretch position for a recommended 30 seconds. This will help give a chance for the muscle fibres to lengthen. I would suggest introducing stretching of muscles 2/3 times per week. It can be done either in the morning or evening, no time has been shown to be better, so whichever time suits your schedule.
If you are having an issue with a specific muscle and it feels tight, painful or is hampering your running performance, then I would suggest increasing stretching to every day of the painful muscle. If a muscle is sore during a run, then stretch that muscle after the run.
Remember that if a muscle is causing pain and tightness whilst you are running, consider taking 3 mins out of your run/race to stretch the muscle on the side of the road. This might help release the tightness and lead to a more comfortable rest of the run (without the need for painkillers/supplements!).
As an add on to stretching consider putting a heat pack on your muscles whilst stretching or watching TV. The heat will increase blood supply to the muscle which will help flush the muscle of Lactic acid and metabolites that cause the muscle fatigue. It will also help promote healing in the muscle.