11/08/2013 12:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Key Stretches for Runners

When I used to think about running, I thought of strange people in shiny, bright-colored tights or on the flip side dressed as if they just got of the basketball court, in the big baggy shorts and ridiculous, monstrous-sized shoes. I thought of them stretching with a leg on a car or bending over and trying miserably to reach the floor without bending their knees. In gym class, those are the default stretches we're taught to warm up for an activity. We don't really know how to stretch appropriately to avoid injuring certain areas. A friend who I affectionately call "H-bar" recently asked me to write about warming up and cooling down. It honestly differs for each runner. Some like to stretch before running, some after running, and others both. I find that I "over stretch" and end up pulling something if I stretch before and after. I was on a yoga kick in the midst of training and decided to do yoga moves before and after running. I once pigeon-stretched myself into a hip flexor shock and instead of running faster, muscles warmed up, blood flowing, I pulled my hip and walked around like I was 113 years old for a week. Trying to force yourself to run with injuries like that is painful, discouraging, and will usually make things worse.

After consulting my runner friends I gathered that unless we are in pain from a previous run we will most often not stretch until after a run, but again stretching before is fine too. Stretching after is especially important because your body is in shock from constant motion and pounding. The key to stretching is to do it slowly and to be aware of any pain you might feel during the stretch. According to my trainer it is also important to do the stretch for about 40 seconds for the muscle to benefit from the stretch. Doing the stretch for five seconds and moving on is not sufficient and will have no benefit to you. Some important stretches involve your calves, hamstrings, hips, quads, and IT or Iliotibial band in your knee. I list these particular stretches because I have been in major pain in all of these places. All my information on these stretches have been obtained through trainer help, trial and error, and runner magazines.

Hamstring stretches are one of the default stretches, but they are typically not done long enough. This stretch can be done standing with your leg raised up against a railing. Slowly lean forward sliding your hands down your leg. Do not force yourself to touch your toes -- the point is to feel the stretch on the back side of your leg. This stretch can also be done lying on your back with a leg in the air. You can either pull your leg by your thigh or knee toward you, or if more comfortable you can use a towel to loop around your leg and pull it towards your body that way.

The calf stretch is my No. 1 stretch, being that I am super prone to shin splints. I usually go to a wall and pretend like I'm pushing my way to Hogwarts. Your arms are pushing the wall, one leg is behind you for support and the other should be up against the bottom of the wall. With the top of your sole against the wall, and you should apply pressure until you feel the stretch in your calf. Then switch legs. If you have more of a shin issue, the one exercise that saved me before my half was standing on my tippy toes for 15 seconds and then moving back to my heels and holding myself on my heels for 15 seconds. I repeated this several times.

The hip is another area where runners run into problems. In the beginning I had no idea how to stretch my hip. I would walk with bigger strides and roll myself on a therapeutic roller to find some kind of relief. I just looked really dumb. I went to the trainer at my gym and blurted out some panicked plea for help. Effective stretches include the butterfly or groin stretch where you sit on the floor and put the soles of your feet together, with or without your hands try to get your knees as close to the ground as possible without causing any pain. Another stretch I like to do is to stand in a forward lunge and then pivot your body to the side opposite the leg you have forward in a lunge. You should feel these stretches inside your hip by your pelvis. To activate the outer part of the hip by the glutes, you can sit with a leg crossed over the other and turn your torso over the crossed knee.

After running, one muscle that is sure to become tight over time is the quad. These are the front of your thighs. Two ways to stretch the quads are standing up, with your hand holding one leg at a time and with the front of the foot against the butt until you feel the stretch. Another way to activate the quads is to lye on your back. One leg extended and the other bent behind you, sitting on the calf and foot until the muscle is stretched.

The IT or Iliotibial band runs through your knee cap. The IT band helps stabilize and move the joint. One stretch for this is to lay on your side with one leg bent in front of you, thigh in front of your body and the other bent behind you. You should hold for a little less than a minute and then switch legs. With my IT problem it always helped to use a knee brace while running so everything stayed in place.

Though stretching after a run is always important, and I spend about 20 minutes stretching to ensure injury prevention, it is common for you to still feel soreness and swelling. My favorite running accessory is my bright orange therapeutic foam roller. I lean on top of it and roll out my shins, thighs, and calves. It hurts a lot to roll them out, but it helps immensely with injury prevention in the long run, and it feels great afterwards. Periodic ice and heat therapy, along with NSAIDS when necessary will stop the swelling, and if there is still a lot of pain take a break champ, there's always next week.

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