The Myth of Stretching

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I’ve been testing a theory since I’ve started barefoot running about stretching.  I’m sure you’ve seen the runners by the side of the road stretching.  They hold a foot behind them, bending their knee to stretch their quadriceps.  They put their leg horizontal on a suitable wall to stretch their hamstrings.  They lean forward and put both hands on a surface, whist keeping their feet flat on the floor to stretch their calves.  They do all this and more, and then they go running and still get injured.

I think all this stretching has gotten into the mindset of the western runner, that if they don’t do it they will injure themselves.  And when they do get injured they think that it must have been because they didn’t stretch enough or didn’t stretch properly.

Well since I’ve started my barefoot running project and this blog I’ve not stretched at all.  Yep, you heard me right, I’ve done no stretching.  I have, as I’ve well documented had a couple of mishaps along the way, but these weren’t injuries as such, just me over doing it.  Even then, I didn’t start stretching.

Right at the start of my barefoot running I remembered reading in Chris McDougal’s book Born to Run that when he lined up with the Taraumara to run a race, they didn’t stretch at all.  So I was curious if you needed to, hence I’ve always made sure I didn’t.

A good analogy here is a car engine.  The engine performs better when it’s warmed up.  Sitting there stationary reving the engine is not a good way to warm it up.  Better to actually drive the car, but be gentle with the engine until it’s warmed up.  This is the approach I’ve taken.  Starting my runs with a very gentle run and doing this for half a mile or so.

After which I will stop and do the closest thing to stretching you likely to see me do.  I perform a couple of what I call “gravity stretches”.  What I mean by this is there are a couple of positions I put my body in that uses my own body weight and gravity to stretch my achillies and calves.  I don’t consider these stretches as I’m not actively stretching anything.  I figured right at the start that my shortened calves and achillies would require a little help with the extra load that starting barefoot running would give them.  So to stretch them out can only help.

The two positions I adopt, for want of a better title, are:

  • The Campsite Loo Squat
    This is the same squatting position you’d adopt when using one of those hole-in-the-ground toilets, especially popular at French campsites.  You’ll need to have your feet completely flat on the floor, so to start with will need to hold onto a post, etc. in front of you to stop yourself falling backwards. Having adopted this position, pull on the post until your heels are just off the floor. Once you can balance without needing to hold a post, you then hold your arms forward and use the weight of your arms to gentle balance you forward to achieve the same.  Touch the floor with your outstretched hands if you need to steady yourself.  You’ll feel this really pull on your achilles and calves, and if you’ve not already started barefoot running, this will be hard to do for any length of time.
  • The Step Hang
    Standing backwards on a suitable step (flight of stairs, kerb, etc.), hang most of your feet off the step, so that your heels are in mid-air and the balls of your feet are on the edge of the step. You should not bounce at all, just let your own body weight pull your heels down.

Further Info
I’ve incorporated these two stretches into this new page: Preparations for running barefoot

Having done both of these a couple of times for a few minutes, I carry on on my run.  I do the same thing at the end of my run just for good measure.  On longer runs (10k plus) I may also do this half way through just for good measure.  I figure it doesn’t hurt to break the repetative cycle of my running to allow my feet and legs to have a small break and whilst I’ve stopped for a few minutes, I’ll roll my ankles around one at a time an also do my gravity stretches.

At no point have I had any problems and don’t expect to in the future.  I really am convinced that the obsession with stretching is part of the myth of motion control padded running shoes and serves no purpose whatsoever.  If anything, you can easily over stretch cold muscles and tendens and do more damage than if you’d not bothered in the first place.

Another thing I’ve got myself is a foam roller.  As your calves build-up you’ll notice they tend to tighten up.  This can, and should, be aliviated by a deep tissue massage.  But the cheaper and easier option is to work your calves with a foam roller.  Just google “foam roller” and you’ll find plenty of information on how to use these.  Just be careful not to roll over any joints whilst doing this.  It’s hurts like hell to start with, but with just a few minutes every day, you’ll soon reap the benefits of loosened up muscles and it won’t hurt at all to do.  Your legs will thank you for it when running and between runs.

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