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Alex Stein, yoga teacher, shows us what to aim for. Photo credit: Alice Morrison.

To stretch or not to stretch, plus some top tips from Alice Morrison

27-May-15

Last updated: 22-Aug-18

By Alice Morrison

That is the question.

Stretching is one of those things that quickly divides any group of runners. You rarely meet a runner who enjoys it, or who is as bendy as a piece of plasticine on a hot window ledge, but most advanced runners will incorporate some kind of flexibility work into their ultra training plan.

Scott Jurek has this to say, “Stretching continues to be a controversial topic among experts. Although it may not improve running performance directly, inflexibility can cause a decrease in stride length and can inhibit you from utilizing the full range of a muscle's strength. Flexibility training can be incorporated anytime of the day, although many runners feel they are able to achieve the best results following a training session.”

The problem arises also in that much of the scientific research that has been done focuses on explosive and shorter-distance runners and there is, as yet, relatively little on what effect stretching has when you are covering the longer distances.

There is also the issue of static and kinetic stretching to consider. A study for the School of Human Movement and Sports Sciences in Australia, found that for explosive movement, static stretching had a slightly negative effect, whereas a slow run followed by stretch and jumps, produced the best results.

Fashions in stretching come and go but the perennial areas that most of us need to work on are:

  • Calves
  • Hip Flexors
  • Quads
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings

As with everything, you need to adapt any advice to suit your own body and running style and to work with what works for you. But here is some advice that we have compiled that we think makes sense.

Top tips

General maintenance: try to incorporate at least one proper stretching session into your training per week. This means a minimum of twenty minutes working on your suppleness. An easy, if not pain free, way to do this is to join a yoga class. Bikram is very popular for desert racers as it helps with heat, but it is also great for tight-muscled runners as you can make some progress relatively quickly. Bikram also helps with endurance – if you can bear the smell of a Bikram yoga class for 90 minutes, you can bear anything.

Night before the race: a loose, rangy stride is something we all strive for. When you watch the pros eating up the hills, they look like they are floating, whereas for many of us, it feels more like a grind or a stomp. Loose legs will help. So, the night before, do a twenty minute stretch to ease off the muscles and also relax the mind.

Immediately before the race: it is probably cold and dark and you are more concerned with getting the right food in, what’s happening with your bowels and changing the battery on your headtorch, but do take a little bit of time to warm up. A few minutes of drills: knee lifts, bum kicks, side strides, back trots and some easy back and shoulder stretches will pay dividends.

During: Dean Karnazes, ultrarunner extraordinary says, “"No matter how hard I push, my muscles never seize up. That's kind of a nice thing if I plan to run a long way." Lucky old him. Most of us will not have that luxury. A quick stretch at a feed station or when your lungs have given out at altitude and you need a break, can help with pain. A whizz through the static stretches for calves, hip flexors, quads and glutes. But do not overstretch a sore bit.

After: If you are too sore straight after your race to stretch, don’t. But try to do it a little later or definitely the next day. If you can, treat yourself to a massage or a steam/sauna, making sure you use the cold intervals too. Then, you can congratulate yourself on working on your suppleness and enjoying it.

Sports physio: Have a consultation with a sports physio once every six months to find out where your weaknesses are and what stretching or strengthening exercises you need to do to avoid injury and improve your running. I found out that almost constant pain in my ITB was due to tight hips and a weakness on my left side, which I have been working on now with stretching. Money well spent.

Some useful demos

Running Flexibility Test (I had quite a lot of fails)

The basics

Very thorough, pick and choose

More specific for ultras

Slightly freaky but interesting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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