The Tao of Stretching
by Laurel Park, Apr. 22, 2002
The Tao of Stretching
I am turning into that which I swore I would never become: a cranky curmudgeon who goes around spouting my collection of life's lessons learned to young people, old people, and pretty much anyone within earshot. Recall if you will the classic story of the youngster aching to go outside and play rather than practice the piano, and his grandfather standing over him saying (with woeful eyes and a shake of the head), "I sure wish I knew how to play the piano. I wish I had practiced when I was your age. You'll appreciate it years from now." Something like that.
Well, I can't play the piano and I don't often regret it, but I certainly wish I had listen to the myriad of coaches, trainers, and physical therapists who exhorted me through the years to include a thorough stretching routine as part of my daily run. I am paying a very dear price for that now and to everyone who ever said (or thought) "I told you so," I humbly respond: you were right.
I think muscular inflexibility is part of my genetic makeup: brown hair, blue eyes, tight hamstrings. I can't recall a time when I could even come close to doing the splits. By fifth grade I couldn't touch my toes. At the time I didn't think much of it but by high school those older and wiser than me were already warning of dire consequences if things didn't change. When I got to college we included stretching as a regular part of our daily practices, but it was more of a quick ten or fifteen minutes before the workout and maybe five minutes or so after. I knew it was good for me and that I ought to do it, but I had no idea that my cavalier attitude would jeopardize my ability to run at all, let alone fast, twenty years hence.
Fortunately, I think most young runners today realize the importance of stretching and maintaining flexibility. Maybe they've seen too many of us veterans whose careers have been cut short by years of neglect. Whatever the reason, it's a good thing. And when a youthful role-model like Alan Webb makes it known that he does 20-30 minutes of stretching and plyometrics a day, every day, it adds credence to the message.
I'm trying to change my ways, although at age 39 and with four years of chronic injury in my wake, it might be too late. And admittedly, my injury has some biomechanical causes as well. But if only I had kept my hips, hamstrings and lower back at least somewhat flexible, maybe I would have needed only two months of physical therapy, rather than ten months. And maybe I wouldn't be dealing with a complete relapse after running on snow this winter. And maybe I'd only be facing the prospect of no more half-marathons, rather than the question of whether I'll ever be able to do any hard training again. Believe me, it's not a pleasant situation and I wouldn't wish this on anyone.
Experience is the best teacher, of course, and I admit to a certain amount of skepticism myself when confronted with other people's tales of woe. Too soon old, too late wise, I guess. But I'll keep broadcasting my message and ignore the rolling eyes and the fixed smiles and the overly-enthusiastic "you're right; I'll start tomorrow". But do me a favor the next time you go out for a run. Savor the feeling of flying effortlessly along the road. Enjoy the sensation of breaking into a hard-earned sweat. Take a moment to enjoy the sense of accomplishment and the rush of endorphins when you're through. Then imagine the possibility of not being able to do that because your body won't let you.
And then, please, go sit in a quiet corner and stretch