I wanted to answer some confusion around the topic of stretching.
It’s commonly believed that stretching is important for reducing injury or preventing muscle soreness… so you might be surprised to hear what science actually tells us and what we actually recommend to our runners here at The Run Lab®. Maybe you don’t need to stretch after all!?!...
“Lou, I'm not sure why I keep getting injured… I ALWAYS stretch before I run!... Any advice?”
I hear this all the time. People definitely believe that stretching plays a role in preventing injury and that they’ve been on their ‘best behaviour’ when they’ve been doing their stretches. Many people stretch before and after they run (or otherwise believe that they should). Runners who do stretch usually do this simply because they always have, rather than understanding WHY or even IF they actually need to do this.
When we consider research on the topic or stretching or warming up for runners, the first thing you need to know is that there isn’t much research! From the studies that have been done you might be surprised to hear what they’ve shown.
Here’s a simple summary of what we DO know when it comes to the science of stretching:
Fact number 1: Flexibility is probably NOT good for runners!
In fact there’s some evidence that greater flexibility actually makes you a LESS efficient runner. Running well is about being a stiff “spring”. Stiffness in your legs actually allows you to store and return more energy with each stride. It’s no coincidence that the international runners I treat all have incredibly short hamstrings.
If our muscles are too ‘slinky spring like’ then we lose control and ‘collapse’ more each time we land. This means more contact time with the ground per stride which slows us down and increases our injury risk.
So general flexibility isn’t necessary for runners (and might actually be detrimental to performance). A certain amount of MOBILITY in specific areas is important for runners. However, you don’t need to me flexible all over and you don’t need to stretch before or after you run to work on mobility….I’ll explain more in a bit.
Fact number 2: Static stretches can DECREASE performance
A Cochrane Review back in 2007 concluded that stretching before, during, or after a workout didn’t do anything to prevent subsequent muscle soreness. It didn’t seem to reduce injury risk either.
There’s also several studies which have shown that holding stretches for a minute or more temporarily decreases strength and speed for up to an hour (likely due to changes in the signaling from your brain to your muscle). The irony of this is that the majority of stretches that people have done over the years before they ran potentially DECREASED running performance, rather than doing anything to help.
So what SHOULD you do if static stretches aren’t needed?...
Dynamic stretches are probably a good idea
The detrimental effect of static stretches is NOT seen when dynamic (moving) stretches have been investigated. Dynamic movements seem to be ok and also to be a good way of preparing your body to move. If you like reading research papers you can take a look at Behm et al. (2011), who found dynamic stretching did not negatively affect performance. These findings seem to be mirrored in other studies which fairly consistently report reduced muscle strength and performance following static but not during dynamic stretches.
Wondering what the professionals do?.... The latest thinking for the optimal warm-up has shifted away from static stretching toward a three-stage dynamic warm-up:
Do I really need to do ALL of that every time I run? I hear you ask!!?
No, probably not!
A structured warm-up like this is a good idea before an interval workout or race; if you’re just heading out for a steady state/ easy run, simply easing into it by starting the first mile slowly is probably good enough.
It really depends on you and your body. If you struggle with feeling stiff or restricted as you run, find you take a while to ‘loosen-up’ or perhaps you run straight after getting up in the morning or after spending a day at your desk… then a dynamic warm-up is probably a really good idea.
Give this routine a go and see how you get on...
What about mobility work?
The lack of evidence for stretching (particularly static stretches) when it comes to reducing injury risk or muscle soreness doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to do any mobility work, ever.
Sure, it's difficult to prove specific benefits to stretching when we do research studies. However, it's actually very difficult to design studies due to considerable confounding variables and individual differences when it comes to looking at runners and running injuries.
My experience as a running Physio is that runners do need to focus on flexibility -- but in a very specific way.
"If you don't have joint range of motion, you can’t move in an efficient way as you run and this has a negative effect on technique and performance”.
Everybody is different. Many of the runners we work with have specific areas of poor mobility which are having a measurable effect on their running gait when we test them in The Run Lab. We usually prescribe some targeted mobility work to do throughout the week. We also recommend dynamic warm-up routines for many of our runners.
In terms of static stretches though… you can probably give those a miss!
If you’re looking for some help with your running, get in touch. Don’t worry if you can’t get in to see us- we can now offer online consultations to runners all over the world from the comfort of their own homes.