by Patti and warren Finke, Team Oregon
Economy is a measure of a successful training program. Running economy or using as little energy as possible is an important part of long distance running. Economic runners use less mechanical energy during running and have a greater degree of energy transfer between the body parts. This allows the body to perform with less energy consumption by the involved muscles. One of the most important factors in this concept is flexibility. This is because lack of flexibility restricts the range of motion and may limit the extent of energy transfers. We will not discuss biomechanics of running, but hope to impress upon you the need for flexibility.

Muscles contain receptors called spindles and Golgi tendon organs that provide sensory information regarding changes in the length and tension of the muscle. The main function of the spindles is to respond to stretch in a muscle and, through reflex action, initiate a stronger contraction to reduce this stretch. The stretch reflex mainly responds to voluntary movements and is responsible for maintaining upright posture. Impulses from the Golgi tendon organs cause reflex relaxation of the muscle and its opposing muscle. When the actual stretch occurs, the spindles resist the stretch. If the stretch is held longer than 6 seconds, the Golgi tendon organs respond allowing the muscle to reflexively relax. This lengthens the muscle and allows it to remain in a stretched position for a long period reducing the possibility of injury due to the stretching.

The purpose of a stretching program is to relax the muscle and work it through the necessary range of motion. Stretching a muscle the wrong way or at the wrong time can activate the stretch reflex causing the muscle to contract and become tighter rather than relaxed. Stretching should be done after a muscle has been warmed up. We do not suggest stretching before running when the muscles are cold and tight. Several studies have shown that pre run stretching may lead to injury rather than preventing it. A recent study of 1500 participants in the Honolulu Marathon actually linked the pre workout stretching with a higher risk of injuries particularly in white males. The warm up for your run should be 5-10 minutes of walking or slow jogging. If something feels tight, you might stop to stretch that area. After the workout, which should include a 5-10 minute cool down period of the same gentle exercise as warm up, is a good time for a short stretching routine. Do not stretch immediately after a long run or strenuous workout when your muscles are apt to be fatigued and dehydrated. Rehydrate and rest before stretching. The best time is to set aside a separate period 3-5 times per week for a complete stretching routine of the exercises shown below which should take about 20 minutes. Many runners find a gentle stretching routine done before bedtime a relaxing habit.

Stretching is done to relax the muscles and the connective tissue. The connective tissue needs 20 seconds to relax and the muscles take about 2 minutes to relax. There are three basic types of stretching :

  • Ballistic Stretching: the old "bounce, bounce, bounce" stretches that actually make the muscles shorter and tighter by activating the stretch reflex. These have been found to contribute to the risk of small muscle tears, soreness and injury. They are not recommended.
  • Static Stretching: this is a slow gradual stretch though the muscle's full range of motion until resistance is felt. The stretch should be done slowly and carefully to the point of slight pull or slight discomfort. It should not be painful!
  • Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching: this is more easily called the "hold- relax" method of stretching which involves a contraction of the muscle followed by a relaxation and a stretch. The tightening "fools" the stretch reflex, activating the Golgi tendon organ. This aids relaxing the muscle before the actual stretch begins and allows you to stretch the muscle further.
Stretching is not a competitive sport. Flexibility differs with the individual. Your goal should be to achieve a good level of flexibility for you, not to match anyone else's level.

The Stretches

The stretches shown can be done either statically without the contraction phase or using the PNF method with the contractions. The contractions are done by tightening the muscle, not actually moving it.

The more you run, the stronger and tighter the muscles of the lower back and the entire backs of the legs become. The first three stretches are for these muscles. The muscles of the outside of the hips and legs also become tight and need stretching.

Lower Back Muscles

Position: Lie on your back, holding one knee to your chest with the other leg bent. Make certain that the tailbone is lifted off the floor.

Contraction: Push out leg against arms, hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax, then pull leg toward chest and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat with other leg. Repeat holding both knees to chest.

Hamstring Muscles in Backs of Thighs

Position: Lie on back with one knee bent. Position towel over bottom of shoe and raise leg as far as comfortable.

Contraction: Push heel out and back, holding leg in place with towel, hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax, bring straight leg closer to vertical, hold for 20 seconds. Don't worry if you can't straighten leg or bring it exactly to vertical. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat on other leg.

Gastrocnemius and Soleus Muscles of the Calves

Position: Stand leaning against a wall, tree, etc. with one leg bent, the other straight behind you with both heels on the ground.

Contraction: Lean forward with a straight back until stretch is felt in the calf. Go up on back toes for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Come down off toes, put weight on outside of the foot mostly on the heel, slighltly raise toes, lean forward with buttocks tucked in and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat with back knee bent which stretches the muscles lower down and the Achilles tendon. Repeat with other leg.

Outer Hip Muscles

Position: Lie down with one knee bent and shoulders flat. Pull one leg over the other with the opposite hand.

Contraction: Push knee up towards ceiling against the hand and hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax and gently push the knee towards the floor while keeping the shoulders flat, hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat with other leg.

Ilio - Tibial Band

Position: Stand sideways 18-24 inches from wall or tree, use hand aginst wall for balance.

Contraction: While standing upright, hips directly under shoulders, push knees slightly away from the wall. Hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax and bend hips toward wall dropping opposite shoulder, hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat on other side.

Other muscles frequently tight in runners, particularly those doing speed work or hill training are the quadriceps and hip flexors in the fronts of the legs and the adductors in the inside of the thighs.

Quadriceps muscles in the front of the thighs

Position: Stand with pelvic tilt ( buttocks tucked in). Position towel around ankle and bend knee.

Contraction: Push bent knee slighly forward while holding leg in place with the towel. Hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax and pull leg backwards with the towell while retaining pelvic tilt, hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat on other leg.

Hip Flexor Muscles

Position: Kneel on one knee. Position other knee slightly behind or directly over ankle. Straighten upper body adding pelvic tilt (buttocks tucked in).

Contraction: Try to pull the knee on the floor forward, hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax, lean slightly forward maintaining pelvic tilt and hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times. Repeat on other side.

Adductors or the Inside Thigh Muscles.

Position: Sit with the soles of the feet together, hands on knees.

Contraction: Pull knees up against hands, hold for 6 seconds.

Stretch: Relax, let knees fall downward towards the floor, hold for 20 seconds. Repeat contraction and stretch 5 times.

Other safe and useful stretches can be found in The Book About Stretching by Sven-A. Solveborn, M.D.

Additional information on stretching can be found on the Web in Stretching and Flexibility by Brad Appleton.

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