This is an excerpt from Training Young Distance Runners-3rd Edition.
Developing Flexibility and Mobility
Flexibility is the capacity to move the limbs through a range of motion for optimally performing a given activity. Mobility is the skill of making coordinated movements in various planes, such as forward, sideways, and diagonally. Of course, running doesn't demand the extensive flexibility of sports such as gymnastics and figure skating, and the runner's limbs move mostly in one plane - in line with the forward direction. For these reasons, some distance coaches don't include training for flexibility and mobility. These capacities, however, are actually essential for young runners, especially for preventing injuries.
Distance running strengthens and tightens different muscle groups, sometimes causing imbalances on opposing sides of limbs and joints. Consider, for example, that runners don't lift their knees very high when covering long distances at relatively slow speeds. As a result, their hamstrings don't stretch much. Repetitive movement through such a limited range of motion can tighten the hamstrings, leading to strains and tears when athletes extend their stride for faster running in workouts and races. In addition, some runners have very tight calf muscles and experience calf strains and tears, as well as Achilles tendon injuries. These examples point to the need for stretching as a fundamental training method.
The stretching exercises in this chapter focus on muscle groups, such as the hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors, that tend to be tight in distance runners. Keep in mind, however, that athletes differ in terms of muscle tightness and the need for stretching. Some runners with loose joints and muscles can even injure their muscles and connective tissues by overstretching. Ideally, runners should be assessed for specific areas of tightness and imbalances by a qualified athletic trainer, physical therapist, or physician who specializes in sports medicine.
Dynamic and Static Stretching
Following is a routine of 13 stretching exercises for maintaining or improving flexibility. The first section shows dynamic stretches, which involve continuous movement of the limbs through sweeping ranges of motion around a joint. The second section shows static stretching exercises, which involve holding the position without movement. Follow these guidelines for performing the stretching exercises:
- Always warm up the muscles by jogging for 5 to 15 minutes before stretching.
- Perform dynamic stretches before static stretches. We recommend performing the stretching exercises in this book in the order they appear. The dynamic stretching exercises loosen up the joints and prepare the muscles for static stretching. The movements in dynamic stretching should be slow and gentle rather than fast and ballistic. Do 10 to 15 repetitions of each dynamic exercise.
- When performing static stretching, hold the position for 20 to 60 seconds, without rocking or bouncing. Stretching should never be so vigorous that it causes quivering or pain in the muscles.
- Use the same stretching routine for both training and racing. A familiar stretching routine helps you stay comfortable and relaxed during the prerace warm-up, when competitive anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate on proper preparation. Spend at least 10 minutes stretching, and never rush the routine.
- Stretch before and after training. Many runners think of stretching only as a pretraining and prerace activity, but stretching after training and racing is essential for maintaining flexibility and preventing injuries.
Arm Reach and Swing
Extend the arms above the head and then swing them downward in a wide, sweeping action.
Slowly roll the head in a circle, gently stretching the neck muscles. Perform repetitions clockwise, and then switch to counterclockwise.
Learn more about Training Young Distance Runners, 3rd Edition.