Stretching: the Why and How of Flexibility

Blog | 03/08/2021

by the Pat’s Run medical team at Banner Health

Walking, jogging, or running are all fantastic forms of exercise for getting your body moving, your heart pumping, and your muscles working. As important as staying active is, it is just as important to protect your muscles and joints by maintaining your flexibility by stretching.

Flexibility is defined as the range of motion of a joint or group of joints that results in pain free arc of motion. Stretching is one way to keep our muscles flexible, allowing them to work through their full range of motion. The more range of motion a joint has, the longer time the joint has to absorb or create a force. This results in decreased loads to our joints over time and helps to maintain their function and reduce wear. This translates over time to decreases in injuries and increases in strength and athletic performance.

Exercise ultimately causes muscle discomfort that we frequently hear described as “tightness.” But don’t get the wrong idea. Your muscles don’t shorten permanently as a result of activity. Your nerves set perceived limits of your mobility that feel uncomfortable and may have you feeling stiff the next day after a bout of exercise. This is your body’s way of protecting it from further stress after a tough workout. Yet anyone will tell you how uncomfortable being ‘tight’ feels. This can cause pain, limited range of motion, and can discourage any racer from wanting to get back to training. We call this stretch intolerance and it varies from person to person. Now that you understand why you need to stretch, it’s time to discuss how best to go about it. There are different approaches to stretching depending on when during a workout you will be performing the stretches. Light stretching or dynamic stretching before a jog or walk can serve as a great warm up to exercise by getting blood flowing to your muscles. Long stretches and static holds should be saved for after your routine to serve as an ideal cool down that improves flexibility over time.

General Stretching Tips:

#1: Don’t overdo it!
Stretching should NOT be painful. When trying to improve your flexibility, you should feel a stretch that AT MOST feels like slight discomfort. NOT PAIN. Pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop so do not push through it.

#2: Stretching can serve as a warm-up!
Stretching before exercise does have benefits. Pre-workout stretching involves dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretching is combining motions that stretch and work muscles without straining them while they’re ‘cold’. Studies have shown static stretching before a workout can actually increase risk of injury, while dynamic stretching improves blood flow and lets your muscles know they’re about to work. We will cover dynamic stretching in a future post.

#3: Stretching can be your cool down!
Stretching after a workout while your muscles are ‘warm’ and have plenty of blood flowing is your best window of opportunity to improve flexibility. When your muscles are warm and your exercise routine is behind you, this is the time for long 30-45 second holds to improve overall flexibility. One very important note is to not ‘bounce’ while stretching as this can increase risk of injury. Constant tension of the muscle is the key to making your muscles more pliable.

#4: Consistency is key!
With consistent stretching, your flexibility can begin to improve in as quickly as a couple of weeks. There are hundreds of muscles in the body so it can be pretty overwhelming as where to start. For a runner, jogger, or walker, the answer is at least a little easier. The most important muscles to stretch are going to focus on the lower body. This includes but is not limited to the quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, hip flexors, and gluteus muscles. Below are some simple stretches that should be done AFTER your workout to improve your flexibility.

Quadriceps: Often referred to as the quads, these muscles cover the front and sides of your thighs. These muscles provide stability to the knee and power you up hills and through your run.

1. Stand upright and pull your one leg behind you with the same side hand.
2. Tighten your butt muscles and pull your heel toward your rear.
3. Keep your knee pointing downward as you do this stretch and try not to arch your back. After
holding for 30 seconds, switch to the other leg. You can also use a chair to balance yourself. You
should feel the tension in the front of your thigh, and from your front hip down to the knee.

stretching hamstrings

Hamstrings: These muscles cover the back of your thigh, stretching from the hip to the lower leg.

1. Sit OR stand on the ground and extend one leg forward.
2. If sitting, bend the opposite knee until the foot is flat against your inner thigh.
3. Lean forward, bending your hips without rounding your back and waist toward the outstretched foot as if reaching for your toes.
4. Hold for at least 30-45 seconds and repeat on your other leg.
Be careful not to pull back your toe during this stretch. You should feel it in the back of your thigh, from your knees to your bottom.

stretching calves

Calves: The muscles of your lower legs are a critical spot to pay attention. Poor calf stretching can lead to very uncomfortable muscle tightness and pain. There are actually two muscles in your calf called the gastrocnemius and your soleus.

1. Stand with your one foot forward and one foot backwards in a staggered or lunge position.
2. Bend your front knee forward while keeping your back leg straight to stretch the gastrocnemius.
3. Keep your heel of your back foot planted on the ground, toes pointing straight.

4. Keep your back straight and hold the pose for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with your other leg.
5. To stretch the soleus, repeat the above with step 2 including bending both your front and BACK knee, while maintaining the upright lunge position, until your feel a stretch in the back of your lower leg.

stretching hip flexors

Hip Flexors: The Psoas (pronounced “so-az”) muscle is on the front of your spine and hip that connects the lower back to the upper thigh. This connection is what allows us to flex and bring the thigh upwards resulting in an elevated knee. (Think “high knees” during running drills.)

1. Start by placing on foot forward and one foot backwards as if you are going into your calf stretch but instead of standing, kneel down on your back knee. Use padding under your knee if you have any knee issues.
2. Keep your chest and shoulders upright and tuck your pelvis under your hips while you tighten your buttocks.
3. Now gently push your hips forward towards the front leg, until you feel a stretch in the front of your hip and hold for at least 30 seconds. Be careful NOT to arch the lower back. This will not isolate the iliopsoas. Repeat on the other side.

stretching gluten

Piriformis/Glutes: The body’s gluteal muscles make up the buttocks and plays a vital role in running. These muscles keep you upright and helps you power through your runs.

1. Lie on your back with knees bent at 90 degrees with feet flat on the floor.
2. Cross your one ankle over the opposite knee.
3. Grab behind your thigh (this is the leg that has your ankle resting on your knee), interlace your fingers, and pull your leg towards your chest.
4. You should feel the stretch in your butt and hold for at least 30 seconds, then switch sides.

stretching gluten

There are many variations of the stretches we have reviewed. If one doesn’t work for you, there is absolutely an alternative out there. The key again is to maintain the stretches for at least 30 seconds to over come our stubborn nerve response and increase our flexibility. Also be
patient, change takes time and repetition but with persistence and consistency you will see the results!