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Stretching… And Other Good Habits

July 28, 2012

Before getting into this post, I want to share a story from my run yesterday morning. I had an hour run on the training schedule, and the night before laid out my run gear and checked the weather report. Partially cloudy and relatively mild temperatures. Great. I got up, used the restroom, had my gu and water, pulled on my run gear, and glanced out the window before going. Heavy clouds and wet ground. I briefly checked the weather report again. Isolated thunderstorms, but mostly passed, with the chance of storms going down quickly over the next 30 minutes. Okay, I figured I should be okay. Three minutes into my run and the clouds opened up and sheets of rain started coming down. Great. At first I stood under an awning for a couple minutes. Maybe it would stop. It lightened up a little to a moderate but steady rain, but showed no signs of stopping. So I took a deep breath and continued with my run.

And actually, within a minute, I was grinning and loving it. It can be liberating to be out running in the rain like that. It’s just this feeling of being connected to the world, of not trying to shelter myself in my cocoon. I often find myself more aware of my senses when I’m working out in the rain. I feel the rain, the wind, the air on my skin. I pay attention to the sounds and smells around me more. I don’t retreat into my music quite as much. I look at the cars on Lake Shore Drive, and I smile to myself. I know most of those drivers are thinking “that crazy runner got caught in the rain.” But honestly, I’d rather be out on that path running than stuck in my car driving. And when the sun came out later in my run, I enjoyed it that much more (too bad there was no rainbow, I looked for one).

So on to the point of this post. Stretching. It’s one of those good habits that we all know we should do if we workout a lot, but few of us actually take the time for. Stretching plays an important role in recovery. It becomes more important as my training load increases. But it’s easy to short-change. It’s easy to think “I have an hour to workout,” and then spend that full hour working out, and at the end think “I would stretch if I had time, but I’m out of time now.” I’ve definitely fallen into this trap myself. Back when I worked out a “big-box gym,” I constantly did this. I thought I should stretch, and then took all my workout time working out. And had no time left to stretch.

With how much time I spend training for the Ironman it would be really easy to fall into this. Yesterday, I got home from my hour run and wanted to get to work. But before that, I planned to take an ice bath to help with recovery, and had to prepare breakfast (food is also important in recovery). Stretching would add another 6 or 7 minutes before I even got in my door. This morning, I went for a mile swim and then a couple hours later did a crossfit workout, and still had to bike home from crossfit. Stretching would take more time before I got on my bike to head home.

For me, the best way to overcome this trap has been to really work on thinking of stretching as part of the workout. It’s a critical part of the workout. It’s just like warming up. I would never run intervals at the track or do a crossfit WOD without first warming up. I know I can’t skip the warmup. And likewise, I know stretching is a critical part of recovery. And as I’ve blogged about before, training = work + recovery. Recovery is part of training! So when I plan how long I need for my run, I know I’m going to spend a little extra time at the end stretching. When I plan how long I’ll be at crossfit, I know I’m going to spend some time stretching.

I almost never stretch before a workout. That might be important for gymnasts, but for the sports I do (and for most athletes), a light warmup is more important than stretching. And I don’t stretch after every single workout. But I stretch after more than half of my workouts. Sometimes it’s quick, maybe just my hamstrings and hip flexors, just 3 or 4 minutes. Other times I take a long time. After my run yesterday I just stretched my hamstrings, quads, and calves. But after crossfit today, I stretched my hamstrings, hip flexors, groin, calves, and rolled out my IT bands (the IT bands are muscles and connective tissue running along the outside of your leg from your hip towards your knee; when they get tight, they can contribute to knee, hip, and back pain).

Stretching is like so many of those other little things we always mean to get to, but often don’t seem to quite finish. The last little bit of cleaning that would really make things sparkle. Taking notes on the article I just read, so that I can reference them later instead of re-reading the article when I need to cite it. When I’m cleaning my home office, getting the last of the loose papers on my desk put away so I have a clean work surface and am more efficient. Organizing photos into books so that we can look at them easily later, instead of just knowing they’re somewhere in a box or saved on a hard drive. Some of those things maybe don’t really need to get done. It’s fine if I don’t actually get my condo sparkling clean. But some of them, we know would really benefit us if we did. When I have loose paper on my desk, I know I would more efficient if I cleaned it. And so maybe we need to prioritize them. Not leave them to chance, not leave them to “if I have time…”

113 days till Ironman Arizona!

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