Updated: Jun 15, 2021
This is a preventative method. It is important to listen to your body and stop when needed and see a professional.
Unless otherwise referenced, the information in this article is from my own understanding or casual conversations with people with more medical knowledge than myself. The why we stretch and what happens is not as important as actually listening to your body and stretching. Like in other articles, this is a simplification of complex processes that happen in the body. In the end, try each stretch and make sure it's making you feel better. If not, stop the stretch and try something else. If ever in doubt, contact a professional.
Whats happening when we stretch
There are a couple of reasons that your muscles get stiff and tight when you exercise:
As you increase the use of any muscle, it needs more nutrients and produces more waste and therefore, more blood will flow to the area.
Additionally, when you work your muscles, your body senses that it needs to adapt to the added strain and starts to build more muscle.
With both of these cases, as more blood flows to the area, it starts to swell. This causes increased pressure, which causes tightness. It's important to note that this is normal, we all accept that tightness and stiffness accompanies working out. A small amount of soreness and ache may accompany this process, but too much ache, pain or soreness is not normal. This is why it is important to listen to your body and collect data about how you normally feel with increased exercise. This will help you understand your balance of muscle growth and overwork/muscle strain. If you are ever in doubt, it's best to consult a professional.
It is also important to note that when I’m talking about muscle tightness and stiffness is not specifically what is called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Tightness is related to DOMS; however, in this article I’m choosing to isolate that sensation and deal with it individually. DOMS is also part of the recovery process, but isn’t dealt with in this article. For more information please see this article.
Why to stretch
If we understand that stiffness is part of the exercise and recovery process, we can consciously take action to help aid the process. In my experience, light continuous stretching for the next 12 hours can support that process by gently stretching the muscles that were worked out.
For me, it feels good and prevents me from walking bow legged. In theory, I imagine that the stretches are helping to push out the deoxygenated blood and create more space for fresh blood and nutrients. This is my personal take on why it works for me, however, I have not found any concrete scientific studies to support that. What I do know is that light continuous stretching means that my muscles are not as tight which means I can get back to training sooner. If you’re interested, I would suggest trying it out and listening to see how your body feels.
What to stretch
Depending on your body, what type of run you did, and what level of runner you are, I find that there are three main muscle groups that get tight. They are my calves, quads and glutes. That's not to say that other areas won’t get tight, but these are the groups I will briefly cover.
In my running, non-medical opinion, you don’t have to sit down for 30 mins and stretch these groups, but continuous light stretching will benefit you as well. I try to do a 1-2 min stretch every 30-60 mins for each exercise. Again, it is important to listen to your body and stretch as needed. This may mean more or less for you. Try different stretches and see what feels good after. Stretching should not cause or increase pain or aches, this is an alarm bell and you should seek professional advice if this persists.
These are some of my favourite stretches for those areas:
Roll Calves with foam roller (Video 60s)
Find a foam roller, wine bottle or anything cylindrical.
Sit on the ground with your legs out in front of you.
Place the foam roller under a calve.
Roll slowly back and forth over the calf
Heel Drops (Single or Double) (Video 30s)
Find a curb or set of stairs.
Stand so your heels are over the edge and your forefoot is on the stair.
Slowly drop your heel(s).
Raise your heels and lower again.
As you stretch your calf, you can vary the speed of the drop for an increased stretch; however, listen to your body, the faster and harder you drop, the higher the risk of pulling a tight muscle.
Standing Quad Stretch (Video 30s)
Standing, raise one of your heels to your butt.
Reach back with the hand of the same side of your body and grab the inside of the foot (the arch).
Engage your core (abs, lower back, glutes and inner thighs) if you wobble or need more stability.
Before increasing the pressure on this stretch I like to:
Align my knees together
Straighten my back, stand up tall
Ensure that my pelvis is facing forward, as I have a tendency to allow the pelvis to shift back and open to the side that I’m stretching
Increase the pressure on the quad by pushing the foot back against your hand
As you increase the stretch, you can slightly shift your weight around to see what if there is a better angle or position that works for your body.
Figure-4 stretches (Video 30s)
Lay on your back.
Bring both knees above your hips with your lower legs parallel to the floor.
Bring the right leg up so that the ankle rests on the upper part of the left knee.
Bring your arms around the thigh of the left knee and slow pull the thigh into your chest, while gently engaging your core (abs, lower back, inner thighs and glutes).
Repeat on the opposite side.
Standing Pigeon Stretch (Video 60s)
Find a flat surface that is about hip height
Bring your left lower leg to rest on top of the surface.
The lower leg and the thigh should be roughly perpendicular to maximize the stretch.
If the left knee is not touching the surface gently use your hands to guide it toward the surface to deepen the stretch
Keeping a straight/neutral spine, bend at the hips to bring your torse toward the surface.
Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.
Just as muscle tightness can increase as you increase your workout intensity or duration. Muscle tightness can also increase as you increase your weekly workout load. So if last week you only did 3 hours of exercise and this week you did 7hrs, even if the daily workout load didn’t increase, the stress on your muscles over the week will cause an increase in stiffness. So you may find that at the end of the week your body is asking for more stretching than at the beginning. Listen and adapt to what your body is telling you.
Adding in a dedicated session on stretching can also help to keep your body relaxed and adapt better to increased workout load. Yoga classes, youtube videos or anything that is low intensity with a focus on stretching can help balance out the added tightness on your body.
Stretch on a regular basis to aid the recovery process
Listen to your body and stretch the parts that need it
As you increase your daily or weekly workload increase your stretching as well
Another great way to prevent injuries is to make sure you're getting the right nutrition and enough sleep