Apex Clinic: The truth about stretching:

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The Truth about Stretching:

Picture the scene: a runner in shorts and vest, diligently limbering up by stretching in many different positions before setting off into the distance.  We’ve all seen it and in fact, many of us may be guilty of it.  But, does stretching before we run help to make our muscles more flexible and reduce the risk of injury?

A mass of recent sports medicine research has demonstrated that pre-exercise stretching – where you hold static stretches for a number of seconds – is generally unnecessary and may even be counterproductive to strength, power and performance.

This month, Apex Clinic, Belfast debunks some common stretching myths and gives you the lowdown on warming up and cooling down to enhance your running performance and avoid muscle soreness and injury.

A gentle warm up is essential NOT static stretching:

FACT: never stretch a cold muscle; that is just asking for trouble…

Irrespective of the session you have planned, whether it is an easy run, interval training, hard tempo session or even on Race Day, you should start with a mild aerobic warm up to get the blood flowing to the muscles.  5-10 minutes of slow jogging will increase the heart rate and blood flow and raise the temperature of the muscles to make the collagen fibres more elastic.  Another top tip is to start each session wearing plenty of clothes, shedding outer layers gradually as the muscles warm up and your body temperature rises.

Dynamic stretching is KEY before a hard session:

FACT: dynamic stretching prepares the body for the task ahead by mimicking the movements of the session and its pace…

The more power the session requires, the more important the warm-up becomes.  For a high intensity session, such as a race or heavy track session, we recommend spending 10-12 minutes dynamically stretching the muscles after the initial 5-10 minute aerobic warm-up.

Dynamic stretching allows the body to work through the full range of movements it will go through during a hard session.  The calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, glutes and arms can be made ready to run through a series of on the spot drills, such as:

• 20 star jumps

• 15 high knee lifts

• 15 butt kicks

• 15 spotty dogs

• 10 hamstring kick outs

• 10 lunge walks

• 10 toe jumps

Throughout these drills, we recommend you really concentrate on keeping your body upright with your head level (as opposed to looking down to the ground) and stay light on the toes to encourage good running posture.

Cool down and stretch for recovery:

A cool down of gentle jogging or brisk walking allows the body to calm from the exertions of the session, enabling the heart rate to settle and for chemical by-products of exercise to be flushed from the muscles.

It is at this point that static stretches are beneficial.  During exercise the muscles and tendons may be stressed and contracted to their limits.  If muscles are not stretched post workout, the fibres will gradually shorten and tighten over time, allowing microscopic scar tissue to set in.  The muscles will become tighter and tighter and this increases the risk of a muscle tear while running.

Resist the temptation to collapse to the ground, or crawl off for a nice warm shower after your next hard run; take 10 minutes instead to stretch your leg muscles for 20-30 seconds per stretch, repeating each stretch 2 or 3 times.  By doing so, you WILL maintain muscle flexibility and suppleness, allowing your body to be fully recovered, ready and injury-free for your next run.