A smart guide to keeping the niggles away – when to stretch, when to roll?
Whether you’re starting from scratch, or finishing off a big week of miles, doing the right tissue release and looking after your muscles will keep away those little niggles that interrupt your training.
- What to stretch and when?
- What type of stretching?
- Do I stretch or do I roll?
- Before or after exercise?
What is stretching all about?
Tissue release in really simple terms involves looking after the muscles that get most use when you run. And although there are multiple common suspects, they vary based on an individual runner’s strengths and weaknesses. This blog will cover:
- Active and passive stretching.
- Myofascial release with external tools.
- Professional intervention.
Why do you need to stretch in the first place
Stretching and other tissue release techniques can do two things.
- Prepare you for physical activity – activate muscles and improve performance.
- Maintain muscle and soft tissue health.
Before a race or a training run, no matter what type it is important to be prepared. Essentially you need to warm up your core body temperature and activate your muscles to optimise performance.
You can do one, the other or a combination. I always recommend a bit of both, but it all depends on what gives you the best results and what you enjoy the most! Keep that in mind, because if it isn’t fun, you’re less likely to keep doing it with a good routine.
Stretching – Which type & When?
Passive stretching is the most common and well known type of stretching. It is used across many disciplines including yoga, and has many benefits. A passive stretch occurs when you take a muscle to its end range (at its longest length) and hold it for a specific period of time. It often makes you feel more limber afterwards, and you just get that feeling that you can stretch a little more each time. A muscle that has had a lot of work and becomes tight can benefit from these stretches, however it is important to do it at the right time – which is AFTER exercise, or as a specific exercise session. The goal is to improve your range of motion. If you are quite mobile already, you may want to consider other types of exercise focusing on control.
Active stretching is completed less but vital for performance and preparation for a run. It takes a muscle through a range of motion at a certain speed without any holds. Essentially it prepares for the movements that you are about to put your body through in a controlled environment. Those basic things you complete before running – butt flicks and high knees – they are preparing your quads and hamstrings and getting them ready to go. Once the muscles are warm and you have raised your core body temperature, they are prepared for the activity you are about to put them through. Ever felt that sluggish 1km feeling if you go straight into a jog? This is due to a lack of dynamic active stretching before the run. Your body isn’t ready and you can feel it! Give it a go before your next run.
Rolling & other techniques
Foam rolling and self release is getting more and more common. And this is great, self treatment to keep your muscles healthy can be a vital part of running performance and longevity! It could be a hard or soft foam roller, different sized massage balls, or now something like a theragun. Each individually can be effective or combined to what suits you best.
What these techniques do is put pressure through a muscle, similar to manual therapy in order to release tension in the muscle, or stimulate it to “switch on” and fulfill a certain stability roll.
Pre exercise trigger pointing can be very important, and would usually be specific to a runner. An example would be a tensor fascia lata (TFL) release. This is a hip flexor at the top of your IT band which if overactive can inhibit performance. A runner may use a ball or device to hold pressure on this muscle for about 30 seconds in order to release the tension in it. Once released it can work synergistically with the quads and glutes for a more effective run.
Personally, I prefer to use rolling after a race and simulate a massage or therapy session. Take a foam roller and roll slowly through the muscle belly for 2-5 minutes. It is different to passive stretching but should have a similar effect – keeping the muscle length and range of motion.
Things to avoid with rolling or self release – hitting the same spots all the time. You can easily bruise yourself which is ok, but if you do…. Let your muscle recover. Otherwise you can do some damage and end up with calcifications in your muscles. And you will get pain when you run, which is never ideal. Secondly and simply – avoid the bone, it will be painful and yield no results. Stick to the muscle!
Do you need to see a professional?
In this blog I am trying to give you a little background and theory behind why it is important to do some stretching and rolling if you want to be a consistent runner. However if you are feeling a bit run down, or struggling to recover – book a physio or sports massage appointment. It will provide you with a jump start on recovery and provide a teaching opportunity on how to maintain yourself. Always ask!! Therapists don’t want you to come back, they want you to learn how to look after yourself – trust me I know, it is a bugbear of our lives that people are injured because they don’t feel confident to fix themselves. Let them help!
Both self release and stretching can form a vital part of your running life. Lean towards the technique you enjoy the most because it will be easier to keep consistent. Then remember the following.
- Active stretching is for warming up and improving performance.
- Passive stretching maintains muscle health through range of motion but is not useful before exercise.
- Self release through rolling or trigger pointing will help maintain muscle health and can be used for activation.
- Both can be utilised effectively together to maintain your overall muscle heath.