Runners’ Stretching 101

Editor’s Note: In a typical “do what I say not what I do” episode, John ran the Marine Corps Marathon after taking a spill on his last long training run.  Despite a nagging pain in his right hamstring, he pressed on because, well, he’s a guy, and has never DNF’d a race, and that’s what guys do!  As a consequence, he’s now spending an hour a week in the hands of a massage therapist, trying to work that giant pain in the butt out.

Runners’ Thoughts On Stretching

The subject of stretching is always a “hot” topic in the running store.  The “Why’s,” “How’s,” and, most controversially, the “When’s.”  Most of us runners in the store stretch, and most of us do the same classic “runner’s stretches” that have been around for generations.  But, for some reason, there seems to be real controversy about  when to stretch – before a run, after running, or both.  And, introducing a little more controversy into the mix, other than anecdotal evidence, there’s little in the scientific sports literature to suggest stretching is beneficial to runners in preventing injuries or improving performance, so in addition to the “Why,” “How,” When,” questions – we’ll add “IF!”

An  article published in the Western Journal of Medicine found on the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Biotechnology Information website, suggests stretching before exercise may not prevent injuries.

Another study published on the NIH website, says “…stretching before or after exercise does not confer protection from muscle soreness.”

Yet another study published on the NIH website says, “The evidence derived from mainly laboratory-based studies of stretching indicate that muscle stretching does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness in young healthy adults.”

So, if the scientific evidence says there’s no benefit gained by runners from stretching – why do it?  Because for most runners, stretching seems to loosen us up and makes those first few minutes of running (or getting out of bed in the morning) a little easier to ease into.  For many of us, it also serves as a “reward” after our runs – it just feels good!  And, to give a little pause to the statements from the medical community above, how many of us have been injured and had gentle stretching prescribed by our physician or physical therapist as part of the rehabilitation routine?  We do it because our (former or current) coach, trainer, or doctor says to.  Most of us simply feel better stretching.

As in so many of these little monthly articles on running – it simply boils down to YMMV – “your mileage may vary!”  And, it again comes down to that unconventional “conventional wisdom.”  There ARE some basic rules for runners when it comes to stretching.  First, we recommend you do a little research into the stretches for the particular area(s) of the body you’re interested in stretching.  Most of us at the running store have our own routines, and would be happy to share them with you.  Following are three well-known running resource sites.  (Note the references in each stretching article to the benefits of stretching!  We told you it was controversial!)

From the Cool Running website, “Stay Loose: Stretches for Runners.”

From the Hal Higdon website, “Five Fantastic Stretching Exercises from Debbie Pitchford.”

From the Runner’s Resource website, “Stretching.”

When stretching, watch your form and gently work yourself into the stretch until you feel a mild amount of tension in the muscle.  Again, ensure you know which muscle you’re trying to stretch and focus on it, making sure the tension is in the appropriate area.  Hold the stretch for a short while, up to 30 seconds, and as the muscle relaxes, stretch it a little further.  Do NOT stretch till you feel pain, and DO NOT BOUNCE! There is an advanced stretching technique called ballistic stretching that uses bouncing, but we don’t recommend this technique without proper training and supervision.  The stretch should feel GOOD!  Breathe deeply and slowly as you hold the stretch and relax the surrounding muscle groups so that you’re focused on the muscle you’re trying to stretch.

Whether you stretch before or after your workout is purely up to you.  Some of us eschew stretching prior to runs entirely, preferring to stretch afterwards when our muscles are warm and pliant.  Some of us do a variant on pre-run stretching, where we begin our workout, but at a slower, relaxed pace, for about five minutes, then stop and stretch, and then resume our running.  As we’ve said before – we’re all an experiment of one.  Do what works for you.

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