How Stretching and Cross Training Will Save Your Runs

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For years, running podiatrists like myself have told you to stretch before and after you train. In fact, I've even beaten myself up for not stretching before a run, even as I spent time telling you that it can help protect you from running injuries. But, as it turns out, I may have been wrong. Just take a look at what some new research suggests about the benefits of stretching.

Running Injuries and Stretching

According to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, stretching doesn’t lower your risk of running injuries (although it may help keep your joints loose). And it doesn’t help improve your training performance. At least, static stretching doesn’t. Walking lunges are a great option for a runner's active warm up routine

Static stretching is the kind of stretching where you stand in one spot and reach for your toes or tug at your hammies. And, according to these researchers, it’s fairly worthless. But an active warm-up, on the other hand, where you slowly and gently ease your body into movement? That can yield all the stretching benefits you’ve been hearing about for years.

According to study author James Alexander of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, “Runners have certain beliefs around running injury risks, injury prevention and performance that are in contrast to current research evidence. These beliefs drive runners to continue to pursue ineffective or non-optimal strategies… whether through static stretching for injury prevention or low-load strength training for performance.”

He’d much rather see runners focus on training moves, like active warm-ups, that can actually improve their training and reduce their risks of injuries. That’s why he and some of his colleagues a series of five “Running Myth” infographics that they will be publishing over the next few months.  

Their focus on static stretching, the third installment in their series, suggests that the only benefit of static stretching is an improvement in your joint’s range of motion, or to help you relax after a run. If you want a better injury-prevention routine now, don’t worry. Alexander (and me) have you covered. All you have to do is keep reading.

Active Warm-Ups to Prevent Running Injuries

One of the main causes of running injuries is the stress the sport puts on your joints, tendons and muscles. That’s why so many runners develop problems like joint pain, shin splints, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendinitis.

To help prepare your body for the stress of a run, this is what your training session should look like:  1. Start with an active warm-up, walking or lightly jogging for 5-10 minutes. You could also incorporate  dynamic stretching drills, like walking lunges, which can help move your joints through their full range of motion. This is particularly important if you’re going to be running at a quick pace.

2.  Cap off your warm-up with three short speed bursts. Run for about 100 meters at your intended running pace.

3. Set off for your actual run, gently getting your body up to your goal speed.

Stagnant Stretching After a Run Still Critical 

Stretching after a run, or adding yoga to your routine on rest days, is still an important part of injury prevention

Now that I've turned your pre-run routine upside down, let me reassure you: post workout stretches are still very important. Stretching after even a slow jog is important because it benefits our muscles and our bodies. Not stretching after a run tightens our muscles and increases our chances of developing running injuries such as plantar fasciitis, shin splints, pulled muscles and muscle tears. Stretching improves our flexibility, decreases recovery time, speeds up healing and most importantly helps prevent injuries. These benefits are key to enhance our running ability and to enable our bodies to run faster and farther. So after a run, make stretching a must, because that is when our muscles get the most benefit from it. Some runners even add on a yoga class to enhance their flexibility and to help stretch muscles we would not normally stretch. 

Oh, and one more thing to consider: even with appropriate warm ups and cool downs, you simply can't run every single day. So, bare with me as we explore the last running habit you have to avoid: running every day. 

Cross Training vs. Daily Runs

Here's another place where I'm guilty of going against my own advice. When I'm in the running zone, I typically run every day and may skip running only once a month. It’s always a must for me to find a place and time to run; when I don’t get my daily run in, I don’t feel the same. I lose my energy and drive for the day until I get my run in. But over-running can also be a bad habit, even for me. It can cause soreness, injuries, irritable moods, and decreased immunity.

Rest is an important part of any training program because it allows both your body to recover and to rebuild. When we allow our body to recover we are able to enhance our performance as both our cardiovascular and muscular systems are rebuilding themselves for an increase in power and endurance. So by incorporating a few rest days, you will improve your performance and your body mechanics. If you have to be active, take a rest day to cross train.  

What, you may ask, does cross-training look like? Basically, cross-training means that you include many different activities in your training schedule. This is especially important for runners, since your sport-specific training puts so much pressure on your weight-bearing joints (think ankles, knees, feet and more) That's why I always want you to add in some other forms of exercise to your routine. This will help build up the muscles that support your joints. Which can help take pressure off those sore spots the next time you run. 

Top 3 Cross-Training Actitives for Runners


Ready to try supplementing your running schedule? Here are my top suggestions:  Running in the pool is the perfect cross-training solution to avoid injuries

Elliptical

This machine helps build your cardio endurance without putting extra pressure on your knees, ankles and hips. Because the elliptical mimics running motions in a lower-impact environment, it's a great choice for "rest" day training, or even for a post-injury recovery workout. 

Swimming

Swimming is basically a podiatrist's dream workout. (Checkout this pool-based workout I recommend for heel pain). Swimming gives you a challenging, full-body workout while putting almost zero pressure on your fragile lower body. Plus, if you've ever considered training for a triathlon, the pool is a great place to test your stamina and dedication. 

Biking

Like the elliptical, cycling workouts can help you keep up cardio training without putting a ton of pressure on your running-tender joints. But keep in mind that cycling can still cause plenty of foot problems. So use this cross-training option less frequently than the other choices I recommended. 

Want to learn more about the way your body responds to runs? Come and see me for a comprehensive gait analysis. Together, we can come up with an individualized training plan to give you the best odds of staying injury-free.

 

Dr. Andrew Schneider
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A podiatrist and foot surgeon in Houston, TX.
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