By James Gucciardi, D.C.
What we really should be asking is, what are your goals and would stretching be effective at helping you achieve them? If you’re trying to prevent injury before activity, the research doesn’t support it. As far as running is concerned, it isn’t an activity that requires your joints to go through a great range of motion anyway so you really aren’t in jeopardy of acutely tearing anything. But if you’re a mixed martial artist that isn’t very flexible and someone starts cranking on your joints, you’re in trouble. So it would behoove you to stretch often to have and maintain appropriate flexibility. But you’re a runner, not a mixed martial artist, so the question begs…
Generally we could all benefit from some stretching and some need to do it more than others. Running aside, modern life with all of its conveniences, has made us sit significantly more and no longer requires us to move our bodies into many different positions. We can get by without hunting, climbing, squatting that our ancestors needed to do to survive. Humans have become domesticated. So basically you need to ask yourself what activities you would like to do and if you don’t have the ability to get into those positions then you need to stretch. So if you want to squat at the gym or simply pick something up off of the floor and not get hurt, you better be sure you have the appropriate amount of flexibility in your back, hips, knees, and ankles. And if you want to run the hills and don’t have enough mobility in your ankles or hips, you need to stretch. You don’t need to be Gumby, you just need adequate mobility.
For the sake of keeping things simple and not boring you to death with explanations of all the varieties of stretching, this article will only focus on two common ways to stretch and when you can apply each method.
Static stretching is what most people think of when they hear the word stretch. It’s when you hold a position where a stretch sensation is felt for a period of time, usually 10 to 30 seconds and sometimes longer. It’s useful for relaxing muscles but the gains made sometimes never stick and often people will find they’re just as tight in that same position the next time they try to stretch. There are several reasons for this. Such as an individual not having enough body awareness of how far to go into a stretch or they simply don’t know how to relax. So they either don’t go far enough to affect any change or conversely go too far eliciting pain, which will cause local muscles in the area where pain is felt to reflexively tighten up in an effort to protect you from injury. Another common reason is the area you are trying to stretch may be tight because it is compensating for weakness somewhere and is trying to create stability.
Dynamic stretching is when you actively move your body into and out of certain positions. You’re in a stretched position briefly and then moving again. You usually repeat the movements many times going further into stretched positions as your body warms up and allows it. It requires you to contract the muscles necessary for the movement you are doing, which forces your nervous system to learn how to use the muscles in those ranges of motion. Dynamic stretching has been getting a lot of positive press lately and for good reason. It’s beneficial at creating strength and local stability while at the same time improving your flexibility.
You should rethink stretching statically before a race. Focus your time on adequately warming up instead. Static stretching before any athletic activity has been well documented to negatively impact performance. The mechanism for this is static stretching inhibits force production in muscle through neural inhibition. Meaning as you hold a stretched position for a period of time, your nervous system will inhibit the signal to that tissue and as a result the tissue then relaxes and elongates. This is great if your goal is to improve flexibility. But not a great idea if you need to use those muscles before doing work because you’re impairing your muscles ability to generate force. Does that mean you should stop static stretching altogether? No, it just means that it’s not the best idea to do right before a race, unless you know of tightness in an area affecting your running gait. Then it makes sense to try and loosen it up beforehand until such time the area has adequate mobility.
Ultimately you should do what works best for you and if you feel that static stretching works best then keep doing it. You just might want to consider the timing of it. Long before your run, maybe 30 minutes to an hour before, might be better than right before you run if you didn’t want to impair your running economy. Generally, after your run or on off days is the most appropriate time for static stretching.
The goal of the warm up should be to prepare your nervous system, muscles, and cardiovascular system for the race you’re about to run. You’re firing up all systems and telling your body it’s time to get ready to rock. If it’s a 5K you’ll need something to quickly “tune up” your nervous system. If it’s a marathon or longer you generally warm up as you go so you don’t want to do too much beforehand so you conserve valuable energy.
As you’re getting your legs moving before your race you can add some or all of the following drills.
After you’ve recovered from your run or on off days you can try some of these stretches. If any are unfamiliar to you pay attention to the sensations you feel when getting into these positions or the transitions going from one stretch into the next. Focus your time on areas that feel tightest on you and make sure to start slowly and not elicit pain. You might feel a little uncomfortable if it’s a position you’re not used to being in but it should not hurt. Less is more. These are a combination of static and dynamic stretches.
One of the biggest reasons people may not see results when stretching is a lack of focus because you don’t know where to begin and a lack of consistent practice. It takes time to see results in your mobility just like it takes time to build strength or endurance. There are many ways to stretch and the internet if full of the best way to become more flexible. What’s most important is not getting caught up in dogma, but figuring out what your specific needs and limitations are and consistently working on that.
One Last Thing: Ultra marathoners tend to be very stiff and for good reason. The body is remarkable at adapting to and becoming efficient at the needs placed on it. And without getting into too much detail, stiffening the muscles and joints, particularly in the lower extremities, requires less energy expenditure to create stability while regularly logging high mileage and is thus more efficient. That stiffness may come at a cost however. For instance, simply bending to tie your shoes could take you to the limits of your range of motion in your spine and hips and become a chore or worse hurt (the price of achievement!). There are mobility exercises you can perform that will help maintain requisite mobility for routine activities of daily living while not working against the stiffness your body is intelligently trying to create. The same goes for sprinters. They tend to be a bit stiffer as well and I’m not advocating working against that either. What is written is for the overwhelming majority of recreational runners.
James Gucciardi, D.C. is a Certified Chiropractic Sports Practitioner and co-owner of Champion Performance Chiropractic Rehab in East Setauket, New York. He uses his background in exercise science and rehabilitation to teach people who are hurt how to train again and avoid injury. You can send him a message here with any questions.