I can tell it's marathon training season even before opening my eyes, just by lying in bed, wiggling my toes and trying to figure out what hurts (and why), as well as whether it's going to affect the next run on the agenda.
With the accumulation of years of muscle conditioning from running long and hard – combined with diet tweaks – the early-morning 'creakathon' has actually subsided somewhat from the stiff-as-a-board years of my first marathon or two.
From a time when I was an avid attendee of yoga classes for stretching, I have fallen almost entirely off the wagon, attending only when I am too battered to do much else. I still believe in the restorative and strengthening effects of yoga and I'm keeping enough stretching in my routine to stave off injury.
We've been conditioned to believe that it's vital to stretch before running. It's true that the muscles need to be warm before running fast, but it's been shown via several scientific studies that static stretching before a race actually decreases muscle strength and doesn't have any particular benefit in injury prevention.
Most run coaches have switched from old-style static stretching (toe touches) to dynamic stretches (bounding, heel flicks, progressive accelerations) before starting into a tough workout. If doing a track workout by myself, I'll usually throw in a few quick dynamic stretches before starting my main set to loosen up the muscles for some fast running.
After running, a few key stretches will keep you mobile and injury free. Sitting at a desk job and wearing shoes (especially high heels) exacerbate muscle tightness, shortening the hip flexors and Achilles tendons respectively, both of which reduce running economy, making you slower.
My personal bugbear, tight hamstrings, will refer into the lower back, causing discomfort and may lead to pulled muscles if not dealt with. Tight calf muscles can shorten your stride, reducing speed. Find yourself a basic stretching routine and set aside a few minutes after each run, once you've cooled down, to work on the mobility that will maintain your hard-earned speed.
I like to complement stretching with a sports massage, or self-massage using a foam roller. Using it to ease out the muscles is different from stretching – rather than elongating the muscles, it breaks up muscle knots and scar tissue. It's great for easing out a tight IT (iliotibial) band, a cause of knee pain in runners. Boy, does it hurt, though. "You want speed? Well, speed costs. And right here's where you start paying . . . in sweat".
It's the day after the Kaiser half-marathon and I'm a little the worse for wear. It was a successful Sunday morning, albeit run in Irish-style weather conditions, with high winds, cold air temperatures and heavy rain tempering the views of the breakers along the Great Highway into San Francisco.
I was excited to shave a few seconds off my now ageing 2009 half-marathon personal best, gale force winds and all. With barely a nod to recovery or stretching after crossing the line, aside from quickly downing a protein recovery drink, I rushed with running friends to Fillmore Street for a Southern style brunch.
Later, it was straight on to a friend's house for Super Bowl Sunday and, sitting on a sofa watching the game, I had a guilty pang at the lack of stretching or soaking that might make next week's running easier.
Today it's payback, and I've put some time aside for an evening stretching and rolling routine, which will hopefully get me back to some fast running in a day or two.