Stretching to Prevent Injuries
As previously discussed, stretching cannot be emphasized enough as an injury-preventive routine. Runners frequently develop tightness in the posterior (those on the back side) muscle groups, which include the hamstrings and calf muscles. These same muscles can become relatively weak, which leads to an imbalance between the muscles in the front and those on the backs of your legs. The abdominal muscles also tend to be weak on runners who do not purposely strengthen them.
The Magic Six, Plus Two
The late George Sheehan, MD, recommended a revised set of “Magic Six” stretches in his columns and in his book Running to Win (Rodale Press, 1991). The following is a slightly modified version of Dr. Sheehan's Magic Six, Plus Two.
The wall pushup is a calf stretch that stretches one leg at a time. Stand with your rear foot approximately 2–3 feet from the wall. Your rear leg should be straight, your front leg bent, and your hands against the wall. Point your feet straight ahead and keep your heels on the ground. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Next is the hamstring stretch: Straighten one leg, placing it with knee locked on a foot stool. Bend forward at your waist and bring your head toward your leg. Hold this position for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
A good stretch for a tight lower back is the knee clasp. Lie face up on a firm surface (a carpeted floor or on grass is best). Bring both knees to your chest and hold for 30 seconds.
Another excellent stretch is the prone press-up. Lie face down on the floor with your abdomen pressed flat against the floor. Place your hands flat on the floor, beneath your shoulders. Relax your abs and push up by straightening your arms (this will arch your back) and hold for 30 seconds.
To do the backward stretch, you simply place the palms of your hands against the small of your back while standing straight. Tighten your buttocks, and bend backward. Hold for 30 seconds.
The shin splinter is an exercise to strengthen the shin muscles. Sit on a table with your legs dangling over the side. Attach a 3- to 5-pound weight to your forefoot. Flex your foot at the ankle (bending it up). Hold for 6 seconds then lower your foot; repeat 20 to 30 times.
To strengthen the quadriceps, do straight-leg lifts. Lying on the floor, bend one knee at approximately a right angle. Move the other leg rapidly up and down from 30–60 degrees. Lower and repeat ten times. Switch legs, repeat five times, and work up to ten sets of ten repetitions.
Finally, the bent-leg sit-up strengthens the abdominals. Dr. Sheehan recommends the sit-up be a gradual bending forward, one vertebrae at a time. Lie on the floor with your knees bent. Sit up at a 30-degree angle from the floor. Lie back, and then repeat twenty times. Do not hook your feet under anything to hold them down. If your spine is stiff, you may not be able to do this exercise.
Since hardly any runner wants to perform eight stretches (even if disguised as six plus two!), the four exercises you should do for optimal health and injury prevention are the wall pushup, hamstring stretch, knee clasp, and bent-leg sit-up.
Even as many runners neglect stretching, some in fact overstretch, perhaps in response to injury. This is usually not a good thing.
An example of when overstretching can be harmful involves stretching a strained muscle. A muscle strain is nothing more than a tear of the muscle fibers. If you are suffering from a strained muscle, stretching must be done very gently or else you risk tearing the muscle fibers even more. Stretching should not increase pain in the sore muscle. Give your injured muscle the best opportunity to heal by avoiding rigorous stretching.