Another controversial question is the relationship between flexibility and performance. Stretching advocates claim that runners need to be very flexible in order to take long strides. Others believe that runners get all the flexibility they need through the activity of running itself. In this case both sides are half-right. There are two muscle groups that are unusually flexible in most elite runners: the hips and the shoulders. Non-elite runners can surely benefit from stretching these muscle groups and thereby increasing the range of motion of the shoulders and hips.
But this alone will probably not improve your stride length, because regular stretching exercises increase only passive range of motion, whereas running requires dynamic flexibility, which is the ability to perform sports movements with minimal internal resistance from your own muscles and joints. This is the distinction that stretching skeptics are trying to get at when they say running itself gives us all the flexibility we need. While the distinction is real, the best way to increase dynamic flexibility is not by running but rather by performing dynamic stretching exercises.
Dynamic stretches are movements that mimic the way your muscles and connective tissues actually stretch during running. An example is the leg swing (described below). Performing dynamic stretches on a regular basis reduces internal resistance in your running movements and thereby enhances the efficiency of your stride. These stretches also make for excellent warm-up movements, because they increase dynamic flexibility acutely from resting to active levels by warming, loosening, and lubricating the muscles.
Dynamic Stretching Warmup
The following dynamic stretching warm-up will increase your active range of motion for individual workouts and increase your dynamic flexibility generally. Do it 2-3 times per week as a part of your warmup following several minutes of easy jogging.
Stand on your left foot and swing your right leg backward and forward in an exaggerated kicking motion. Complete 10 swings and repeat with the left leg.
Side Leg Swings
Stand facing a wall, lean forward slightly at the waist, and brace your hands against the wall. Lift your right foot off the ground and swing your right leg from side to side (like a pendulum) between your left leg and the wall. Do 10 swings and then switch to the left leg.
Take 10 giant steps forward with each foot, lunging as far forward as you can each time.
Lateral Bounding with Squat
Start in a standing position. Leap to the right by lifting your right foot, pushing off the ground with your left foot, and spreading your legs apart as you move through the air to your right. Land on your right foot, draw your legs back together, touch the left foot to the ground, and immediately leap to the right again. Keep moving with a quick (but fluid) and unhurried rhythm.
The final element of this complex movement is an undulating squatting motion. So, as you bound steadily to the right, gradually squat a little lower toward the ground with each leap, going as deep as a half-squat, then gradually draw your body back to full height. Think of the way the plastic horses on a carousel undulate up and down as the carousal spins. It should take about six leaps to complete a stand-squat-stand cycle. Continue bounding to the right for 30 seconds, then bound to the left for 30 more.
Lateral Running with Rotation
Run sideways to your right while rotating your hips first to the right and then to the left repeatedly. To make this work you will have to cross the left foot over the right foot in front of your body when rotating your hips to the right and then cross your left foot past your right foot behind your body (so that you are actually briefly running backward, sort of) when rotating your hips to the left. It may take you a minute or two to get the coordination down. Run to the right for 30 seconds and then run to your left for 30 more.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.