I would bet that upon reading the title of this post, there are a lot of people out there who roll their eyes and say, "Yeah, I've heard that before." It's strange: I've met a lot of runners and people who are into fitness in general, and it's extremely common for them to treat stretching as if it were some kind of nuisance. Even many of those who do take the time to stretch do it begrudgingly, like a six-year-old eating their broccoli—they'll clean their plate, but they don't have to like it.
It's not as if I don't know the feeling. I used to avoid stretching myself. When you're ready to exercise, you just want to get on your machine and go. You want to cut the preliminaries and get your heart pumping and your feet moving. Makes perfect sense.
As I said, I used to skip the stretching, but one day a friend of mine made me a wager: he said that if I tried stretching before I got on the treadmill and I didn't see an increase in my performance, then he would owe me something or other. My friend was a fitness trainer, so I should have known better than to gamble in his arena—I lost. Not only was my run that day more comfortable than ever before, I was able to go longer and push a bit faster.
I became a believer, and to this day I stretch before and after every workout. Over the years my stretching routine has expanded as I've learned new methods.
Why You Should Stretch
If asked why stretching is important, I would guess that most people would say that it reduces your chances of becoming injured. While this is true—you are less likely to strain or otherwise injure joints and tendons, pull muscles, or develop problems such as shin splints—there are additional benefits that many people don't consider.
Along the same lines as reducing the likelihood of injury is the fact that stretching helps you be more comfortable in general. Taking the time to stretch—especially after your workout, which many people neglect to do—will decrease the amount of muscle soreness you experience once your run is finished.
As I learned through my aforementioned bet, stretching also increases your athletic performance. Having your muscles loosened up and ready to flex means that you can move a bit freer, pushing yourself faster and further. I have found that my running times and speeds have gone up as I've developed a more complicated stretching routine.
Bottom line: stretching makes me a better athlete, and it will do the same for you.
How to Stretch Properly
If it is going to help you, however, you have to know how to do it right. Improper stretching can actually cause injury.
First off, never bounce while stretching, which can cause tearing in the muscle you're trying to stretch. Muscles need to be stretched slowly, because their built-in response to a rapid motion is to contract and become tense. Through gentle motions, however, you can avoid the contraction reflex and get a good, long stretch.
Hold each stretch until the muscle feels like it's released its tension—for around 30 seconds or so—but don't try to push beyond that point. Never try to force past muscle resistance, and never stretch until you start to feel pain.
Find the Stretches that Work for You
Like your exercise routine, your stretching routine should be tailored to suit your needs. Everyone's body is different, and everyone has different goals when it comes to working out, so experiment with different stretches to find out what provides the best results for you.
Think of stretching as an inseparable part of your adventure into health and fitness. Remember—success comes to those who are properly prepared. Stretching prepares you to perform your best possible workout.