Stretching for Runners: What’s the Deal?
When it comes to stretching for runners, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. When I first started running in high school, I was taught to perform a series of static stretches before every run. This is extremely common, and conventional wisdom would suggest this is what everyone should be doing.
I decided to revisit the idea of stretching for runners, as part of our “beginner” series. Trying to read things through the lens of a new runner, I have been surprised by how good all of these reminders are for me. Often we need to be reminded of what we already know, in order to actually do them.
Here are a few beginner (and perhaps advanced) things about stretching for runners.
What is Stretching Anyway?
When my son wakes up in the morning, he pushes his hands way above his head, points his little toes down and does an adorable toddler stretch. “I’m seching daddy!” he tells me. What’s he’s doing is simply the “process of trying to lengthen muscle and soft tissue to increase flexibility.”
Static stretching is when you hold a stretch pose for a given length of time (10 - 60 seconds), then move on to the next one. Ideally, you hold this to the “edge” or your range of motion, but try not to extend beyond. Dynamic stretching uses “active movements” of the muscles you’re going to use. Think lunges or jumping jacks. These stretch your muscles, but are not held. When you hear the term range of motion, that is the movement potential of a joint, usually its range of flexion and extension. Functional range of motion is how much you need to perform a given function.
How Much Stretching Do We Need?
For athletes, it is critical to have a functional range of motion that matches the demands of your sport. Gymnasts will need greater range of motion in their legs than runners. Dr. William Roberts (Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, and medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon) has said that,
Running only requires that you can move your legs in the functional range, so if you can run comfortably and without injury, there is no need to stretch.
I also talked with a good friend of mine, a physical therapist, who told me that in running, stability is more important than flexibility. If you stretch a lot, you may be making yourself unnecessarily flexible, and open yourself up to injury.
There is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine stretching before or after exercise to prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes.
So it would seem that stretching isn’t necessary (at least not before running), and we’ve all been wasting our time! To summarize, If you’re uninjured and running comfortably, your time may be better spend on strength training routines like this one.
Dynamic stretching on the other hand, is far more beneficial (probably necessary) before you begin running.
Why Dynamic Stretching is the Place to Start
Dynamic stretching is a form of warming up (stretching in motion) that gets your muscles ready to rock and roll. It’s tells your brain it’s time to begin propelling your muscles forward, and start acting like a runner. According to Matt at NorCal Strengths and Conditioning,
When you put your body through a series of stretches while in motion, it sends signals from the brain to the muscle fibers and connective tissues in that area to prepare to do work. Your body’s temperature begins to rise and blood is pumped to the working areas of the body. Getting good blood flow to the area of the working muscles is very critical in order to supply the area with energy needed to do work.
Before every run, do some form of dynamic stretching. Here are some ideas…
My Favorite Dynamic Stretch
The lunge matrix is a fantastic way to begin your run. The lunge matrix, based on physical therapist Gary Gray’s work, is most commonly associated with elite running coach Jay Johnson. For nearly two years now, I’ve begun 99% of my runs with this routine. It is, as Coach Johnson puts it, “…quintessential, elemental, fundamental… to staying healthy as a runner.” Without a doubt, this has made a huge difference for me.
The lunge matrix is a series of 5 lunges, done 5 times on each leg for a total of 50 lunges. It causes your body to move in all three planes of motion. The idea is to wake up your whole body before running. The three planes are,
- The sagittal plane (forward and backward)
- The transverse plane (rotational plane – like swinging a golf club)
- The frontal plane (side to side).
I often add leg swings after my lunge matrix to get my hips warmed up a bit more. If you want more dynamic stretching options, see these dynamic warmups. It’s a combination of butt kicks, high knees, “hacky sacks” and other things that make you look like a dork, but ready to run.
What About Stretching After Running?
This might be hard to accept, but I found one research review (that looked at a whole bunch of studies) that says stretching after you run has no impact on muscle soreness or injury prevention. The reviewers concluded that,
The evidence from randomised studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.
This defies all logic, common sense, anecdotal evidence and everything I’ve ever thought or been taught about stretching and running.
So, what are we to do about this?
Do what feels good. Self massage tools may help more with soreness, but comfortably hitting major muscle groups (hips, quads, hamstrings, calf’s) usually feels good to me. Here are some simple stretches that, if done right, will help you feel less sore (even if it’s in your head).
Do you Stretch?
With so much seemingly conflicting information on stretching out there, what have you found to work for you? Share it below.