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To Stretch or Not to Stretch, That’s the Question!

Date: 
11/15/2010 - 09:22

By Lena Hollmann/Running Journal/November 2010
Recently the results were published from a USA Track and Field-sponsored clinical trial, that sought to answer the question whether stretching before running increases the risk of injury. Close to 1,400 volunteers completed the study, after being randomly assigned to either perform a specified pre-run stretching routine or no pre-run stretching at all, for a three month period. When a volunteer was sidelined from their usual running routine for three days or more, it was counted as an injury.

Overall, the study found no statistically significant differences in injury rates between those who stretched and those who did not. However, one interesting finding was that among runners who normally stretch but were assigned to the non-stretch group, the injury rate was about twice that of those who kept stretching. This lead to the recommendation that if you were previously doing pre-run stretching, the best option is to continue.

Until recently, I used to stretch to my heart’s content before running and racing, especially my calves, quads, and hamstrings. I would, for example, lean forward against a tree or wall and hold a calf stretch for 15-30 seconds, thinking it would keep my extremely tight calf muscles limber enough to get through a 10K without cramping up or getting injured. And judging from the results of the above study I better keep doing this, right?

It depends. If my only concern is to avoid injury, then maybe. But if I also want to improve my times I may be better off if I modify my pre-race routine. According to the bulk of available science, holding a stretch (a.k.a. static stretching) before a competition may actually hinder performance. The underlying reason is a stretch reflex that prevents a muscle from being overstretched. This reflex is being activated during static stretching and could induce the muscle to become tighter in self protection. (The same stretch reflex is also being activated during a medical checkup, when the doctor taps your knee with a mallot so that your quadricep extends and then immediately contracts.)

Some studies have found that athletes cannot jump as high after static stretching than after no stretching at all, as they aren’t able to generate as much power when they jump with tighter muscles. Therefore it is logical to assume that we cannot push off as hard with each step while running after static stretching either, which in turn will cause us to run slower.

Still, many runners want to hang on to their stretching routines like a pair of favorite shoes. In the USATF study it was hard to recruit runners who used to stretch, since they didn’t want to risk being assigned to the non-stretch group and be forced to abstain from it for three months. And while stretching before a run didn’t seem to have any benefit according to the study, it did not appear to do any harm either. However, those of us who want to not only stay injury free but also improve our 5K or marathon times may want to instead perform dynamic stretches that incorporate constant movement.

I learned about dynamic warm-up techniques in workshops and personal training classes that I have attended recently, and have tried it before my last few races. I am not sure I can attribute my slightly faster race times compared to earlier in the season solely to this new way of warming up, since as Dr George Sheehan used to say, I am an experiment of one. But I have noticed a dramatic improvement in how I feel during the first mile of a race. During the past several years it could take me up to a mile after the starting gun went off until I felt like I was running on all cylinders. My pre-race jog and stretching seemed to be just “the warm-up before the warm-up.”

The beginning of a race didn’t always use to be this challenging. While in my 20s and 30s I could take off like a canon ball and feel fine the first mile -- and pay for it later, of course! Naturally, as I got older my muscles and tendons got tighter and I needed more time to loosen up. We masters runners need to pay more attention to our warm-up routines, as we are no longer able to put high amounts of stress on muscles that are not properly warmed up. And performing pre-race static stretches will not make them better suited for the task at hand.
You might wonder how to implement a dynamic warm-up in practice. I start my pre-race warm-up with slow jogging for five-10 minutes, followed by exercises that increase my joints’ range of motion without invoking that pesky stretch reflex. Instead of standing against a wall stretching my calf muscles, you may find me walking while picking up and “hugging” one knee at a time, or raising a straight leg in front of me while touching my toes. I also jog while kicking back my heels, and do lunges while I rotate my arms to the same side as my trailing leg.

To warm up my hip joint, I lift one leg to the side and scissor it in front of me. I finish with a few gentle stretches of my calves, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors, but only hold them for about a second and instead do them a couple of times. I also gently move my arms and shoulders in circles, as my upper body assists me in moving forward while I run and therefore needs to loosen up too. You can view several picture and video examples of pre-workout dynamic stretches by typing “dynamic stretching for runners” in your Internet browser.

After a race or workout it is OK to do static stretches, although the jury is still out whether it will increase flexibility long term. It has short term benefits though, and therefore it is recommended to stretch tight muscles after each workout. You will most likely feel better after stretching, and as long as you don’t stretch beyond the point of discomfort, there are no indications that it does any harm. Some studies have suggested that stretching immediately after a hard race or workout can diminish the amount of delayed onset muscle soreness that tend to follow a day or two afterwards. And there are runners, myself included, who sometimes practice yoga for increased flexibility and feeling of well being.

Even though flexibility is considered one of the cornerstones of fitness, it can be overdone. If we are too flexible our joints are less stable and can more easily become dislocated. However we runners tend to have the opposite problem, especially as we get older. We are notorious for having tight hip flexors, quads, and calves, which in turn can give us weak hamstrings and lover back. A tight muscle needs to be stretched and a weak one strengthened. There is a time for taking care of these imbalances, however not during the half hour before a race!

Yet if you are used to holding your stretches before a race or workout and don’t want to fix anything that isn’t broken, there should be no harm continuing the practice. But if you are currently doing pre-race static stretches and want to try something new, why not give dynamic stretching a try? You may even get a PR or a seasonal best as a bonus!

Footnote: If you want to read more about the USATF pre-run stretch study, visit http://www.usatf.org/stretchstudy/index.asp.

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