Thursday, August 9, 2012

Loosen Up Already!

Yikes, it's been awhile since my last post and I apologize for the long delay.  To borrow a line from a favorite book, "Life, the Universe, and Everything" has contributed to the long pause but thankfully I am back and to make things even better, today was my first run in over 2-1/2 months!  It was not pretty, but it was simply wonderful to finally get back out and at least begin the long road to getting in shape again.

The last time I ran was also the last race in which I competed, Xterra Trail Run 1/2 Marathon, this past May. It was that post race experience that highlighted a topic I thought needed to be discussed and my long layoff and restart certainly helped me confirm that as my topic for today's post.  You've heard it all your life: "You better stretch or you might pull a muscle". But even though we have all heard this age old advice, very and I mean very few actually take this advice to heart.  I am always astounded when I see someone start and finish a run, no matter if it is short or long, and jump straight in the car and take off.

It's a cool, crisp Fall morning, don't know about ya'll but I can't wait, and you decide to go for a run. So like every other time you strap on your running shoes, head outside, and do your usual two-minute drill. You jump around for a bit, bend over and touch your toes to stretch your hamstrings, maybe even do a quick quad stretch, and then off you go.  Sound familiar?  I hope not, but it's probably standard for a lot of runners.  Truthfully, that's just wrong. It does not matter who told you, but stretching cold muscles is something you should never ever do. Even though you may have jumped up and down for 30 seconds or run around the parking lot once does not mean your muscles are warm.  Imagine putting a rubber band in the freezer for a few hours and then trying to stretch it out.  What will happen?  As you might guess, it will break into multiple pieces.  This is similar to what your muscles go through when you don't warm up properly and attempt to stretch them cold.  It creates numerous micro tears in the muscle, breaking it down and making it weaker.  And believe it or not, doing static stretches, where you hold a stretch for several seconds, before a workout may also weaken your muscles and decrease your overall performance.  Rule #1, always always always warm up before you do any type of stretching. The best type of warm up is one that gets your heart pumping so it is moving blood to your muscles. If I am going to stretch at the beginning of a workout, then I go ahead and start my run and then about 10 minutes in, stop and stretch.  This will get the muscles sufficiently warm and perfused with blood to supply them with needed oxygen.

More often than not, I prefer stretching at the end of my workout.  My muscles are warm from the workout and if I ran a lot of hills, intervals, or just really pushed hard during the run, my muscles are tired and tight and need the relief offered by a good stretch. Of course there are a number of opinions on which stretch is best, I honestly don't care which one you do, just make sure you do them.  It will improve your strength and flexibility.  Below are a few of my favorites:

Good standard hamstring stretch.  To make it even harder, reach for your toes with both hands.
This is hamstring/glute stretch.  Make sure you push your knee with your elbow to create added tension.
This is a great groin stretch.  Again, push down on your knees with your elbows to give and added dimension to the stretch
Ok, this one may not be very familiar to everyone, but it is a fantastic stretch.  I believe it is called the "Pigeon" stretch, but I credit the one and only P90X creator Tony Horton for introducing this stretch to me.  This is probably my favorite stretch.  It stretches everything including hips, quads, hams, glutes, etc. 
Not sure what this one is called, but it's a great hamstring stretch too.
Stretching can be and frankly should be a key part of your exercise regimen.  In addition to flexibility, stretching can improve overall range of motion of your joints.  Always keep stretching gentle, don't bounce.  If you feel pain, you've stretched too far.  Hold a stretch for about 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.  If you have a problem area or the stretch is particularly helpful in eliminating some discomfort, you may want to repeat the stretch.  Again, Rule #1 always warm up before stretching, even better, go ahead and get your run in and then stretch.  I don't want to sound like I am preaching, but if you make stretching a regular part of your workout, it will not only improve performance, it may also help prevent injuries and prolong your athletic career.