Stretching should be part of every runner's regime but first, flex some mental muscle and read our top ten tips on getting the greatest benefits out of your stretching
STRETCH AFTER YOUR RUNS, NOT BEFORE
Contrary to popular belief, before a run is not the best time to stretch. For a start, your muscles are cold, making them more susceptible to injury, and secondly, static stretching (in which you hold a fixed position) can reduce muscular force for up to an hour. The best time to stretch is within 20-30 minutes of finishing a run, while your muscles are still warm and pliable. Additionally some runners will jog for 10-15 minutes followed by some gentle stretching, and then start their planned training.
GET YOUR POSITION PERFECT
Just a small error in body positioning can greatly reduce the effectiveness of a stretch - for example, if you are stretching your calves but don't have your back foot pointing directly forward - so follow instructions carefully, or ask a coach to demonstrate what to do.
DON'T FORCE IT
Never force your body to the point of pain. Stretch to the point at which you feel tension and a slight pulling sensation in the muscle, but it shouldn't hurt. Maintain this position until the 'stress-relaxation' response occurs and the force on the muscle decreases. Avoid 'bouncing' in and out of the stretch position - known as 'ballistic stretching'. Ballistic stretching increases the likelihood of over-stretching or tearing muscle fibres, so simply hold and relax.
MAKE IT LAST
Aim for at least 15-20 seconds per stretch. This allows time for the 'stretch response' to take place, which occurs once the muscle relaxes and stops trying to protect itself from the stretch. A few perfunctory seconds hopping about on one foot doing a quad stretch is not long enough to be of benefit!
Don't hold your breath during stretches. In fact, it can be useful to synchronise your breathing with your stretching - breathing in as you adopt the position and then exhaling as you relax into it and hold.
LEAVE NO STONE UNTURNED!
We runners are savvy about stretching the quads, hamstrings and calves - but don't neglect less obvious areas such as the hips, lower back and soles of the feet.
Everyone has imbalances in flexibility - you might find your right leg is tighter than your left or that your hamstrings are tight but your calves are supple. Make sure you spend a little longer on your tightest muscle groups to help redress the balance.
VARY YOUR STRETCHES
Once you are comfortable with a repertoire of stretches, try playing with slightly different positions to target different areas of a muscle. For example, you could try a hamstring stretch with the leg both straight and slightly bent. Or you could try a quad stretch lying on your side instead of standing.
USE A TOOL
It's perfectly possible to stretch without any equipment at all, but there are a few useful pieces of equipment that can help you maximise your stretches. For example, a foam roller can help iron out stiffness in many muscle groups (and it's great for lengthening the iliotibial band (ITB)along the side of the leg), a tennis ball is great for easing tightness in the glutes and a golf ball can release a tight plantar fascia (on the sole of the foot).
MAKE IT REGULAR
Stretch regularly. Running causes muscles to contract and shorten, and a post-run stretch helps return them to their 'resting length'. It's fine to miss the odd stretch, but if you neglect it too often for too long, eventually your muscles will adapt to a shorter position, restricting your range of movement and stride length. The American College of Sports Medicine advises performing flexibility training 2-3 times per week.