It’s springtime in West Michigan, which to runners means the kickoff to a long summer of 5Ks, marathons, mud and color runs. But when it comes to injury prevention, the debate continues on whether stretching before or after a run is best.

According to OAM physical therapy director, Jeffery D. Regan, “Research cannot definitively say one protocol is best.” He prefers the old-fashioned way: warm up, stretch, run, cool down, and stretch again.

Warm Up
A low grade warm up initiates the cardiovascular system and prepares muscle fibers, ligaments, tendons, and joints to work at a higher level. A good rule of thumb is to “get the heart rate up to the point of having a little sweat,” says Regan.

Stretch (Before and After)
There are two kinds of stretches—static and dynamic—both of which should be performed and often get ignored by runners. A good static stretch is held for about 1 minute and targets major muscles: hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, IT bands, low/upper back, chest, and shoulders. A dynamic stretch involves large, exaggerated ranges of motion—like lunges or quicksteps—that activate joints and muscle groups that may not be reached from an isolated, static stretch.

Cool Down
“If you’re functioning at a very high level, a proper cool down is as simple as a fast-paced walk for 5-10 minutes,” Regan recommends. “Allow your body to get the lactic acid out of its system.”

But, proper running preparedness involves more than pre- and post-activity body prep.
Learning how you run and when you should run can be just as important for performance optimization and injury prevention.

Foot Type
Foot type affects how you run. “There’s all different types of feet, which affects how you land, how you strike, how you push off,” explains Regan. Knowing their foot type can help runners select the right equipment designed for their specific needs. “Overpronators typically have a more floppy foot, without much rigidity, and may have a harder time pushing off. Anti-pronation shoes or stability shoes are available for them. Whereas supinators have higher arches and tighter calves, and there are shoes built for them, too.”

Many runners training for a long race will run everyday, slowly adding more distance over time. “While that is good,” says Regan, “you’re almost subjecting yourself to the possibility of an overuse injury, because you’re constantly using the same muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments.”  Alternating other cardiovascular exercises—like swimming, biking or weight-training—with your running schedule may save you some pain down the road.

Here are three tips from Regan for a safe and healthy running season:

  1. Get your feet and flexibility checked. “With a quick physical therapist evaluation, you can learn what your biomechanics look like, how your lines look, if you have hip drop, etc. This especially applies to new runners who are getting ready to train for something they haven’t done before.”
  2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Flush your body with fluids over the last days leading up to the race.
  3. Give yourself enough prep time. “Don’t go straight to the starting line expecting everything’s going to be okay. Go to the race with plenty of time to do a proper warm up. I don’t know many runners who are willing to spend 30-40 minutes warming up and stretching. But when they do, it always aides in the mechanics of how well you perform.”