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Four Essential Stretches for Runners

Giles Gyer, co-director of Osteon physical therapy, explains the four essential muscles every runner needs to stretch.


Choosing a good stretching routine for running is like choosing which abs DVD to buy. Do you go for eight minute abs, maybe seven minute abs? But wait, five minute abs are now on the market!

The choices are endless, and if you make that mistake of trying an internet search you can get confused and lost; a lot of people revert back to those good old stretches we learnt in PE class and hope for the best.

 

So where do we start?

Let's get the basics out of the way first.

  • Don't stretch cold muscles that is like stretching a cold elastic band; wait till you've warmed up first
  • Stretch lightly and gently before doing any speed training
  • Ease gently into the stretch: don't bounce off the end point, don't force it or push through that pain barrier
  • Before any speed training try holding each stretch for 10-15 seconds
  • After a training session, your post stretch or developmental stretch should be held for 30 seconds
  • Remember to stretch both legs!!!

 

Next, were going to cover the muscle groups I believe are a great starting block for anyone who is unsure what to stretch or how to stretch. We are going to focus on the Piriformis, Gluteals, Quadriceps, Hamstrings and Calves.

Now, before you jump on my back about the ITB (Iliotibial Tract), a common cause of knee pain, runners knee and other conditions, I personally don't think you can stretch the ITB effectively. It's a thick, fibrous band of fascia that several muscle groups insert into, and for me, the best way to work on the ITB properly is to use a foam roller; it's painful but trust me it gets the job done.


1. MUSCLE: Piriformis / Gluteal Muscles

One of the most underrated muscles for runners is the little known piriformis muscle which lies deep behind the gluteals and is responsible for the external rotation of the hip joint.

If your foot excessively pronates when pushing off, your leg rotates inward; the piriformis acts as an external rotator of the hip (turns outward) and contracts in reaction to each push-off. This muscle can be a real pain in the bum for runners, literally, and it's often the underlying cause of lots of problems. It can produce sciatic pain, muscle imbalance and it can literally stop you in your tracks. So how do we stretch the piriformis and glutes effectivily?

Stretch Technique

Cross the right leg over the left, with the right ankle resting on the left knee. Slowly lift the left foot off the floor and toward you while you apply gentle pressure to the inside of the right knee. Hold 20 to 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.


2. MUSCLE: Hamstrings

Tight hamstrings are also underrated and can lead you into a world of trouble if they are not looked after. Based at the rear of the legs starting right up by your bottom or as we call it, the ischial tuberousity, and going all the way down your leg, past the knee joint and inserting into the tibia and fibula - talk about important.

The hamstrings control your upper body from falling forwards when your heel hits the ground and secondly, they control how far forward your foot is placed as your leg swings forward.

Stretch Technique

This is a great stretch, it takes pressure off the lower back, you can do it straight after your piriformis and glute stretches. Find a door frame, place one leg up against it, then engage the hamstrings by straightening the leg out, job done.


3. MUSCLE: Quadriceps

These are some very hard working muscles and also one of the most important components of a runner's stride, bridging the knee joint. The quads take plenty of wear and tear from running, and we just expect them to keep on going, but if they are excessively tight or over-trained, an improper stride or even a simple misstep can mean a real risk of injury.

Are you starting to see as pattern here? All these stretches can be done on the floor, one after another in a little routine. here we take the classic quad stretch but remove all that wobbling around trying to stabilise yourself when standing up.

Stretch Technique

Sitting down on the floor, keep one leg straight, take the ankle of the other leg and bring the foot behind you stretching the quads. To increase the stretch push the pelvis forwards slightly.


4. MUSCLE: The Calves

Situated at the back of the lower leg, the Gastrocnemius (outer calf) and the Soleus (inner calf) are the first point of contact when your foot strikes the floor. They act as shock absorbers, but they act mainly as planterflexors for the feet, they help with the push off , they are real stabilisers for the lower legs and are often neglected by runners, who train the quads and hamstrings but forget about stability work for the lower limbs.

Stretch Technique

Take a good step forwards and make sure your feet are both pointing forwards. Plant the heel of the rear foot into the ground and lean forwards, feeling the stretch across the back of the legs. To increase the stretch just move that front foot a bit further forwards.