It is so important to stretch before and after exercise. Not only will it prevent injury, but you will gain more flexibility which will in turn make the sport you practice easier and more enjoyable.
Running is a straight-ahead, forward-moving activity, it has none of the side-to-side darting movements of the court sports. For most enjoyment in running, you want to cultivate the most rapid turnover of which your legs are capable—cover the most distance in the shortest time. You get better at this when you stretch your back and hips. Whether you are sprinting, particularly care about winning your race, or are just running for the fun of the thing, your stride will feel most comfortable when the range of motion it requires is well within your capability. You will have less muscular resistance to contend with if your muscles are used to moving beyond the minimum range necessary for your activity. Hence, your gait becomes fluid and easy; you move with efficiency and confidence.
Here are 3 stretches that will help to increase your flexibility and range of motion, allowing you to recover faster and improve your running technique.
The Setup: Lie on your back on the floor, using a carpet or mat for comfort. Place your arms by your side, palms down, forming an “A” shape (fingers reaching away from you at 45 degrees to your torso).
The Stretch: Bring both your knees as far in to your chest as you can. Drop both knees over to the left side and let them rest where they fall. Keep your right shoulder down on the floor. The stretch here is produced by your knees pulling away from your shoulder, causing your spine to form its characteristic spiral shape. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
Enhance Your Flexibility: If your right knee is resting directly on top of your left knee, you have reached the maximum spiral stretch in this position. If your right knee is hanging above the left one but not reaching it yet, it is okay. Any stretch requires practice, and learning things would be no fun if everything worked perfectly immediately. There will likely be a strong pull across your lower spine. If you can hold this pull without grimacing, allow the weight of your leg to bring your knee down gradually until, with enough familiarity with this stretch, your body is able to rest the right knee on top of the left. If the pull feels too strong at the moment, just place your left hand under your right knee. Give the knee as much support as it needs, so that you still feel a strong pull across your back, but not so much that you can think of nothing else.
Side Hip: Lying on side
The Setup: Lie on your right side with your legs stretched out, one on top of the other. Place a rolled-up towel under your right hip. The placement of the towel is important: it goes between your pelvic bone (iliac crest) and your thigh bone (greater trochanter). Get familiar with both these bony landmarks on your side before you place the towel. You don’t need to know anatomy: just feel the bones that come to the surface at your hip and thigh.
The Stretch: The stretch appears in the side of your hip facing the ceiling. In other words, the towel lifts your bottom hip so you can experience greater range in the top hip. Gently brace yourself with the open palm of your left hand. You can rest your head either in your hand (elbow bent) or on your straight right arm. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
The trick here is to allow your abdominal and rib area to fall into the floor above the towel, and your thigh to relax into the floor below it. Keep sending thought messages of relaxation to those areas; allow them to drape over the towel and solidly settle onto the floor. Also, think left pelvic bone moving away from left thigh bone—and lots of space along the curve of your left hip.
Enhance Your Flexibility: For a greater stretch, use a larger towel. When you reach the point at which the world’s largest towel still does not give you enough stretch because of the way it gives, try a rolled-up fitness mat or soft roller, which will elevate your hip higher. This is not necessary, however. At least at the beginning, the towel will work well.
Hip Flexors: Kneeling lunge
The Setup: Kneel with your right leg forward and left leg behind you. Adjust the width of your stance for balance: for more stability, move your forward leg a little farther to the right. Your right toes should line up in front of your heel—make sure they are not rotated outside your heel. Your front knee can be a little behind the ankle—just not in front of it. This protects your knee from strain. For more support, kneel between two chairs, and place your hands on them if needed. Otherwise, place your hands lightly on your front thigh. Hold your neck in a comfortable position—neither too lifted at the chin nor too bowed toward your chest. Just comfortable, without strain. Looking straight ahead helps to accomplish this.
The Stretch: Gently tuck your pelvis. The stretch will appear in the left leg—the back leg—at the hip-flexor level in front. When you experience the stretch in the right spot, you can intensify it by moving your front leg a little more forward. Ultimately, and with practice, your back hip will be much lower to the ground. On your way there, you will have moved your front foot forward in many small increments. Now comes an important point, which cannot be stressed enough. The hip-flexor stretch contains the beginning of a lovely back extension—also called an arch. Whenever we practice developing the back extension, we always encourage length: spine goes up as well as forward, to avoid scrunching the lower spinal vertebrae together. Repeat the stretch on the other side.
Enhance Your Flexibility: If you can connect with the feeling of lift in extension as you practice, you will begin to feel a deep abdominal stretch starting near the top of your kneeling leg. This is your iliopsoas group, which reaches deep into the interior of your body.
For more stretches and stretching advice check out Stretching with Ease by Linda Minarik.