|Mind + Body: Stretching
Stretch it Out
The eight best stretches for runners
by: Sharon Stocker
For many of you, stretching is like brushing your teeth. You
know it's good for you and you do it regularly, but it's hard to
get very excited about it. Most of the time, you just go through
the motions. Which is a shame, because stretching-if you do it
right-is not only good for your running, it's enjoyable, too.
That's right, enjoyable. But only if you focus on the stretches
while you're doing them. More on this in a minute.
The question is, what does stretching do for you? It may enhance
performance, though that's hard to prove. More importantly,
stretching can decrease your injury risk. In a recent study of
200 college athletes from the Newark, New Jersey area, risk of
injury dropped as flexibility increased.
"Basically all clinicians working with athletes believe that
improving flexibility is a good step toward injury prevention,"
says Lisa Krivickas, M.D., a physiatrist who led the New Jersey
study. "And that's particularly true for overuse injuries, which
are the most common injuries among runners." Most experts also
believe the best time to stretch is after your run, not before.
Now, about this idea of focus. It could be time for an attitude
adjustment, to actually think about your stretching routine
while you're doing it. Rest assured, bringing mind and body to
your stretching won't take any more time, yet it can
dramatically enhance enjoyment and flexibility benefits. (As a
result, you're more likely to stick with the program.) The key:
Shift your state of mind so that you are fully aware of what
you're doing while performing proper technique. The following
eight exercises for runners are based on the Iyengar yoga
method, which involves contracting and stretching the muscle
simultaneously. Iyengar requires a combination of stretching,
strength, balance and breathing that demands your full
attention. With these exercises, you'll get a taste for the
technique, but the best way to master it is to take classes
(call your local Y) from an instructor who's been trained in the
Do these stretches in the order they are presented. With each,
carry out the isometric actions described for the full length
of each stretch, breathing evenly through your nose. Hold each
stretch for at least 15 seconds (unless otherwise noted) and
repeat all stretches at least two times if possible. If you do
them outdoors, keep out of the midday sun. Most of all, let your
brain "get quiet," and focus your attention on the place of
maximum stretch sensation, using your breath to gently soften
and relax any tension. With each stretch, find the optimal
balance between effort and ease,just as you would on a run over
your favorite course.
Upper calf: With your hands on a wall, slide your right leg back
two or three feet and lean forward onto your left leg, knee
bent. To stretch the right calf, straighten the right leg and
firmly press the heel onto the floor or ground while letting the
hip come forward. Point the toes of your right foot forward, not
out to the side. Lower calf: Slide your right foot forward a
foot and bend the knee as much as possible while keeping the
heel pressed firmly down on the floor. Repeat both stretches
with the left leg.
Runner's lunge, for hip flexors
After completing the last stretch, place feet shoulder-width
apart, then bend your knees and bring your hands to the floor
beside your feet. Take your left foot back until the leg is
fully extended straight behind you (your right shin should form
a right angle to the floor). Press back through the left heel to
stretch the back of the knee. Push up from your fingertips to
allow your chest to "open" and face forward. From this right-leg
lunge, go to exercise#5, but be sure to come back to a left-leg
lunge followed by a final minute or two in the "dog pose" before
going on to exercise#6.
With one hand on the wall for support, use the other to grasp
your foot behind you. Keep your standing leg firm (keep the
quadriceps taut) and stand up tall. As you draw the heel toward
your buttocks, press the bent knee forward without actually
letting it move too far in front of the standing leg's knee.
Gently tuck your tailbone forward at the same time, which will
increase the sensation of lengthening in the quadriceps. Repeat
with the other leg.
Knee / iliotibial band
Put your hands on your hips and cross one foot over the other.
Tighten your quads, then inhale and stretch your torso up. On an
exhalation, bend forward at the hips (not the waist), coming
down as far as you can. Rest your hands on the floor or on a
support for balance if needed. Once down, "pull" your feet
toward each other without actually moving them, to engage the
iliotibial band. When you come up, keep your back straight.
Repeat with your legs crossed the other way. Lastly, uncross
your legs and repeat the forward bend with your feet placed
hip-width apart, quads taut. Again, pull feet toward each other
without moving them.
Downward facing dog pose
From the lunge, go straight into this all-purpose stretch, which
is great for the hamstrings, calves, shoulders and lower back.
First, take your right foot back and place it next to your left
foot. Place your feet hip-width apart and your hands
shoulder-width apart on the floor. Bend your knees and lift your
buttocks up high so that your pelvis tilts, making the
Next, press down firmly with your hands (particularly the inner
edges from the base of the index fingers to the thumbs) and
visualize your spine and torso lengthening. Slowly straighten
your legs, keeping the buttocks high while lowering your inner
heels toward the ground (they don't have to touch the ground).
Release your neck and let your head hang freely. Breathe evenly
while keeping this pose for 1 to 2 minutes. Finish by lowering
your knees to the floor and sitting back on your heels.
While lying on your back, draw your left knee into your chest.
Clasp your hands around the back of your thigh and press your
thigh into your hands. Keeping the thigh taut, slowly extend
your left foot to the ceiling until your leg is straight. Press
your heel to the ceiling (point with the heel, not the toes).
Keep the right leg extended, with the right thigh pressing down
and toes pointing up throughout the stretch. Switch legs and
repeat. Variation: Do this stretch with a strap or jumprope
around your raised foot, which makes it easier to keep the leg
Thread the needle / the piriformis
For a great piriformis (outer hip) stretch, lie on your back,
bend your knees and bring your feet to the floor near your
buttocks. Place the outer edge of your left foot on your right
thigh near the knee. (Let your foot cross beyond the thigh if
you're tight.) Wrap your hands around the right thigh or shin
and draw it toward your chest. Keep your head relaxed on the
ground, or support it with a towel. For a deeper stretch, gently
press your buttocks downward until your lower back arches
slightly. Switch legs to stretch the right hip.
Legs up the wall
Elevating your legs is one of the quickest ways to rid them of
fatigue. To get into position, extend your legs up the wall and
let the full weight of your back release down into the floor.
Get your buttocks as close to the wall as possible, backing away
until your lower back is fully supported on the floor. Close
your eyes and breathe quietly for up to 5 minutes. This position
will gently stretch the hamstrings and lower back, and it's a
restful way to end your routine.