Tips for staying healthy while running

Herald-Leader contributorJune 19, 2011 

With winter a distant memory, runners have dusted off their shoes and hit the road.

Some will compete in races for the first time this year, while others may focus on improving their personal best time. So how to stay healthy and injury-free during your running sessions this summer?

Warming up beforehand is a good start. Here are some typically asked questions.

Question: Does stretching before running actually help avoid injury?

Answer: Yes and no. While it is essential to warm up your muscles before engaging in running or other athletic activities, static stretching — holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — may not be the best choice for a warm-up.

Research has shown that static stretching actually decreases muscle strength for up to 30 minutes following the stretch. This lack of muscle strength and control could lead to a higher risk of injury, because the joints are not as well protected during the activity.

A more practical choice before heading out to run would be a warm-up that includes dynamic stretching.

Q: What are dynamic stretches?

A: They are activity-specific moves that both raise core body temperature and help to loosen muscles. This gets the body primed to run. Keep in mind these dynamic movements are not ballistic stretches — those that involve bouncing the joint and quickly contracting the muscles — which could lead to injury.

Research studies have demonstrated fewer injuries in groups that performed dynamic stretches compared with those that followed a static stretching program.

Q: What are some good stretches I can do before running?

A: The possibilities for dynamic stretching are endless, and they can be incorporated to include all body parts. Here are some stretches for two of the major muscle groups in the legs:

Calves: The dynamic approach of warming up the calves would be to walk on your heels, with the knees straight, for about 30 steps.

The static options of stretching your calves include pushing against a wall with the leg to be stretched behind you, or dropping a heel off a step.

Both of these increase flexibility in the muscles, but the dynamic stretch better prepares the connective tissue for the demands of running.

Hamstrings: A dynamic method of warming up the hamstrings involves walking while lifting your outstretched legs one at a time, as if marching.

A static hamstring stretch typically involves keeping the legs outstretched while bending the torso toward your thigh to feel a pull in the back of your leg.

Q: What's the bottom line about stretching?

A: Static stretches are still necessary to help maintain range of motion. They're important because factors like genetics, repetitive athletic movements and inactivity can result in poor flexibility and injury risk. But they are most effective when performed following the activity, after the muscles are already warmed up.

Therefore, a program of dynamic stretching for each major muscle group before running with static stretches for the same groups after the run will help to maintain overall muscle flexibility and performance.

Kelly Eversole is a physical therapist in the UK Sports Physical Therapy Clinic.

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