I don’t think that I have written a single blog entry, for either trail running or Nordic skiing, without mentioning stretching. It really is that important. Proper stretching is not what separates the pros from the amateurs. It’s what separates the pain-free and limber from those who feel haggard at the end of a work day, before even getting out for a run. Stretching never hurts. By that I mean it’s not a bad thing to be doing – before a workout, after a workout, as a workout, or while you have a few minutes waiting for the bus or that first pot of coffee to brew in the morning.
Best Practices of Stretching Before Trail Running
Even though there is no bad time to stretch, different types of stretches can be more effective at different times. Stretching for trail running, or any other activity, will be most effective if your body is warmed up. A 10 minute run or walk can be plenty to get the body ready. This helps to activate the muscles and nerve paths, increasing your ability to monitor and manipulate your body.
It is important to be focused. You don’t need to be that guy or girl with the headphones and the set jaw in total concentration – just be sure to be present while you’re stretching. Really think about each muscle and relaxing fully into the stretch. I often find that when I finally relax, I begin to stretch new muscles that are a bonus to the muscle that I’m focusing on.
Breathe. I know this sounds simple since it is a basic necessity to living, but really focus on your breath. Imagine that you are breathing straight into a specific muscle, creating space, and then relaxing that muscle on the exhale.
Why Is Stretching Before Running Helpful?
Stretching increases the range of motion of your muscles. This larger range of motion enables you to build power – whether it is for trail running, biking or even climbing. Strength tends to diminish at the limit of a muscle’s range of motion. As you expand that range it simply means more power. This also helps to prevent injuries.
When you stretch it also gives you an opportunity to truly focus on each individual muscle. This can increase body awareness, coordination, and body control, which become helpful when it’s time to descend down a rocky trail.
When Not To Stretch
Rolling out of bed, or getting out of your work chair after four hours of staring at a computer screen are less than ideal times to start intensive stretching routines. Think about what your body wants to do naturally. Imagine that classic shot from the movies where someone wakes up and slowly stretches one arm over their head while arching their back, and of course, yawning loudly. In a situation where you are not warmed up, be sure to move slowly, and listen to your body.
This is a perfect segue to the most important rule of stretching – if it hurts, don’t do it! As a coach, I would annoy my athletes with lots of these basic rules that were just as likely to come out of your grandfather’s mouth as he pulled a penny from behind your ear. You know when pain is a bad thing versus the type of pain that is just part of pushing your body beyond where it likes to go.
Stretching as a Workout
Ever heard of this thing called yoga? Most people think about yoga as part of a workout, instead of considering it more of a workout all on its own. Stretching as a workout can be a great way to connect with our bodies after that long day at work where all we want to do is go home and watch TV. Turn on your favorite reality show (“Moonshiners” for example) and settle in for a nice, long stretching session.
I suggest doing some research on yoga practices, or even better going to one of the many yoga studios that exist in your town. As with all athletic endeavors, it is best to have a professional start you down the right path, with the proper technique, before trying it on your own. What I like about yoga as a way to stretch is that progressions are well thought out in order to maximize the experience. One of the key principles of yoga is to be sure to listen to your body, and move gently while pushing yourself just outside of your comfort zone. If you are looking for a few suggestions on running stretches, check out these sweet videos from one of my previous blogs (Carhartts are optional).
I bet you can sum up my thoughts about stretching as well as I can: it’s effective and a necessary part of any athlete’s routine. If you want to avoid being the next Shaq in an Icy Hot commercial, then take a few extra minutes as part of your workout, or make it an entire workout, and go ahead and stretch your woes away. I wanted to end this blog with a pun, but that might be a stretch…
Patrick Coffey, Summer Programs Director, White Pine Touring