Do you know how to properly stretch? We’ve all done it. You’re getting ready to head out for a run or play a game of flag football with buddies and you start to do the typical torso rotation, twisting your hips a couple times, leaning over to touch your toes, arch that back and look up towards the sky, swing the arms back and forth a couple times. Okay. Good to go!
Stretching is something I continue to struggle with because, to be honest, I just want to get started! Based on what I’ve observed at the gym, among friends and working in physical therapy, a lot of you probably have the same mindset as I have had: “I’ve been doing okay so far. I’ll just stretch when I feel like something is tight.” This might work for you in the short-term (if you’re lucky), but as an athlete training daily and building up on miles, I can’t stress how important it is to incorporate a regular and focused pre- and post-workout stretch routine with each training session. Your muscles can work against you just as much as they can work for you. And, just like in any successful relationship, if you love them, they’ll love you back.
Here are a few tips on how to love your muscles:
– Think of stretching as proactive rather than reactive. Don’t wait until something feels tight or painful. Pain and tightness are results of not stretching properly, or at all – so stop it before it happens. While you’re working through your stretch routine, focus on stretches that will benefit your current aches and pains, but don’t neglect the rest of your body.
– Don’t do static stretches without warming up first! This is a big one. Think of your muscles as being rubber bands. What happens when you stretch out a cold rubber band? It snaps. You need to get blood flowing to your muscles before you stretch them out. Go for a light 5 minute jog or swim a few laps first. Static stretches include stretches that “pull” on your muscles for 30 seconds to two minutes. For example, bending forward to touch your toes for a hamstring stretch, bending your knee and holding your foot up to your butt for a quad stretch, etc.
– Take your time. Holding a stretch for five seconds then moving on will do nothing. Let your muscles ease and relax into each stretch, remembering to breath.
– It’s not always comfortable. Let’s be honest, when you’re rolling a muscle out on the foam roller, or you’re working with a lacrosse ball, it’s likely going to be pretty painful. That pain is your muscle tightness yelling at you (you can yell back if you want). The more time you spend rolling/stretching it out, the less painful it will get.
– Foam rolling or anything where you’re “rolling” out your muscles is okay to do at any time. Use whatever you have available: lacrosse ball, foam roller, rolling pin, PVC pipe, etc. I actually carry my lacrosse ball with me in my purse so I have it on hand.
-Finally and, in my opinion, the most important piece of the puzzle, develop a routine that incorporates stretching. If you’re going for an hour-long run tonight, start developing the mindset that you have a two-hour workout ahead of you instead of just that one hour. Think of your run as the “main set” and bookend it with at least 20 minutes of stretching.
Here’s my typical routine (developed for my specific needs and is not be an exact template for everyone)
1. 5-10 minute warm-up jog or easy spin on the stationary bike
2. Side-stepping with a resistance band around ankles, as demonstrated by the beautiful Ventana
3. Zig-zag stepping with resistance band
4. Monster walks forward and backward with resistance band
5. Sidelying clams with resistance band around knees (2 sets of 10 reps on each side)
6. “Fire hydrants” with resistance band around ankles (2 sets of 10 reps on each side)
7. Rear foot raised dynamic hip flexor stretch (2 sets of 10 reps on each side)
8. Kneeling static hip flexor stretch (3 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
9. Seated hamstring stretch (3 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
10. Modified Earth stretch (3 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
11. Standing gastroc stretch (3 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
12. Standing soleus stretch (3 sets of 30 seconds on each side)
1. Repeat all stretches listed above
2. Spend at least 15 minutes foam rolling muscles from top of body to bottom. Don’t just “roll” through these quickly. When you hit a tender spot, spend some time there, breathing through the pain and really pinpointing that muscle tightness.
**Everything in this post is merely a suggestion based off of my own experience. I am in no way qualified to prescribe treatment for others. If you need specific guidance to fit your own needs, please refer to a certified Physical Therapist and/or trainer.