Stretching is an essential component of any fitness routine, working to increase your range of motion and improve muscular coordination. While a solid full-body stretching and exercise routine is essential to top performance, focusing some stretches on key areas can help to improve your running and prevent some common aches and pains.
Hip flexors are powerful muscles that play a role in every stride while walking, jogging and sprinting. When strained, it can lead to limited hip motion and pain in the upper thigh, hip and lower back. To stretch, start in a kneeling position, planting the right foot on the ground in front of you so that the leg is bent 90 degrees. With your back straight, lean forward into your right hip while keeping your left knee pressed into the ground. This will stretch both the left hip and the right hamstring. Hold this position for about 20 seconds before switching to the other side. In order to more closely target the hip flexors, squeeze and contract the glute muscles of your left hip.
Among many functions, the hamstrings are mainly responsible for propelling your body forward with every step, making it another common problem area for runners. Proper attention to this muscle complex can help avoid strains, pulls and other common maladies. Using the double leg stretch, stand up straight and cross your feet so that the outside of the ankles touch. Slowly bend over from the waist, reaching for your toes, and hold for 15-20 seconds.
For a single-leg hamstring stretch, lie flat on your back. Raise your right leg upwards, keeping your hips flat on the ground. Hold your lower thigh and gently pull the leg towards your head until you feel a slight stretch. To deepen the stretch, use a yoga strap or towel, placing them on the ball of your foot and using your hands to pull the strap towards you. After holding for 30 seconds, switch legs.
The hamstrings work with the quadriceps as opposing muscle groups to keep the pelvis stable. Because the quadriceps are often the dominant muscle, the strength ratio between the two can become out of balance, resulting in tight, shortened quadriceps and tight, over-lengthened hamstrings. To work out the quads, stand with your legs together. Bend your right leg, lifting your heel towards your rear and grasping your right foot with your right hand. To ensure the deepest stretch through the quads, press your shoelaces into your hand, and if needed, place your left hand on a teammate's shoulder for balance. Hold this for about 20 seconds before switching to the other side.
The lower back muscles help to keep the body upright while running, giving your hips and thighs the energy needed to propel you forward. A strained lower back can escalate hamstring and hip flexor issues, throwing off your stride and possibly causing injuries from the ankle all the way to the hips. To perform a lower back stretch, lie on the ground with your knees bent. Reach up and grab the backs on the knees with both hands and slowly pull them in towards your chest.
Running and sprinting, while good for you in many ways, does tend to put stress on the body, especially in the lower limbs and joints. Targeting the muscles you use most will ensure you are functioning at your maximal running performance.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.