The most important thing you need to know about stretching is this: it is good for you. The second most important thing to know is that the word "stretching" refers to many different types of exercises that do many different things to the body. We just need to understand what to do, how to do it - and when. The ongoing debate in the scientific and running communities about how an athlete should approach stretching is sometimes taken as a sign that there are no significant benefits to increased flexibility. It just isn't true. The truth is that stretching is a complicated topic but understanding and applying the science of flexibility and proper warm up techniques is essential if you are going to improve your performance.
How Stretching Works
Done properly, stretching can help you decrease muscle tension, reduce pain (make sure you seek professional help if you are having significant pain!) and improve your range of motion. The catch is that you need to understand what kind of stretching to do and when to do it.
Let's begin by looking closely at the two major kinds of "stretching" that have been the focus of research around running. Dynamic activation occurs when you extend your muscles while moving them in an effort to improve blood flow, temperature, range of motion and potential power output. An example is doing slow but smooth walking lunges to increase your range of motion before a run. Traditional "A's" and "B's" also fall in the dynamic activation category. Static stretching is the label used to describe traditional stretches that are done while sitting or standing still where you put a muscle on stretch and hold the stretch for a period of time.
The emerging opinion about stretching in the scientific community is that athletes should engage in dynamic activation prior to a workout and use static stretching after their cool down.
What The Research Tells Us
Studies have shown that static stretching prior to activity limits your power output and results in a neuromuscular inhibitory response in the muscles, which is counterproductive when you are trying to prime your body for activity. In simple terms, putting your muscles on static stretch reduces their power output for a period of time. Researchers are not sure how long the inhibition lasts. Research has also shown that static stretching prior to exercise does very little for injury prevention. The largest such study involved military recruits and found that those who performed static stretches prior to exercise were just as likely to get injured as their cohorts who did not stretch at all.
Research about dynamic activation has illustrated that if you perform these types of movements prior to a workout, your body is better prepared for the more intense exercise that is to follow. In part, this is because dynamic activation requires excitatory neuromuscular signals to be sent from your brain to your muscles which increases metabolic activity. It can also increase blood flow to muscle and increase muscle temperature, which help in the "warm-up" process. Research has also shown that if you perform a static stretch following a dynamic activation movement, you will undo the benefits of the more active motion. In a group of collegiate track athletes, when dynamic stretching was followed by its static counterpart, there was a significant reduction in sprinting speed.1
The approach to stretching that is supported by the evidence involves the following progression. Begin by warming up for five to ten minutes with light activity (around 50 per cent of your maximum heart rate) so that your muscles have sufficient blood flow, oxygen and temperature to benefit from activation. Then proceed to find a warm place to engage in some dynamic activation exercises. (Make sure you get your coach or trainer to show you activities that are appropriate for you). Select dynamic activation movements that replicate the kind of movements you will perform during your workout (i.e. walking lunges before running, shoulder rotations before swimming). For runners, this could include the famous A's and B's that get blood flowing through the quadriceps and hamstrings by kicking at your butt or lifting your knees toward your chest.
When your workout is complete, and you have done a proper active recovery with at least ten minutes of light activity, there are significant benefits to static stretching because static stretches relax your muscles and calm your nervous system. By performing static stretches for at least 20 seconds per exercise, you can reduce tension in your muscles. You can tell how long to hold a static stretch by placing a muscle on stretch and holding the stretch until you feel the muscle relax and lengthen. This often takes 20-30 seconds and the relaxation and lengthening happens when your nervous system reflexes that are designed to protect the muscle from rapid lengthening decrease their firing.
Improve Your Performance
Here are some things to keep in mind about stretching:
- Always warm up before you run by doing some dynamic activation exercises
- Static stretching is beneficial after your cool down
- Never bounce when you do static stretching
- Once you have initiated a static stretch, hold it until you feel the muscle relax (usually about 20-30 seconds)
- Remember to breathe while you are stretching or activating
- If you are new to dynamic or static stretching, make sure you get instruction on how to do it properly
Thoughts on Yoga for Runners
We are fortunate to live in a day and age when the ancient art of Yoga has achieved international popularity and there is widespread access to Yoga studios. The physical benefits of yoga techniques are immense because they promote improved flexibility and have been tested during a three thousand year process of trial and error. Any runner will benefit from attending yoga classes – even if it can only happen once a week. I prefer flow Ashtanga yoga classes but try a few out and see what works for you.
Yoga is a deeply meditative and spiritual practice that will help you develop mindfulness and get in tune with your body, habits that are of great benefit to all of us. From stress reduction to various forms of emotional release, yoga has side effects that will improve your fitness and help you live the vital and healthy life you crave.
1 Static Stretching Impairs Sprint Performance in Collegiate Track and Field Athletes:
Greg Wells Ph.D. (www.drgregwells.com, @drgregwells) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Faculties of Medicine and Kinesiology. He was the sport science analyst for the Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 & 2012 Games, and is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes. Jessica Caterini is a member of the Human Physiology Research Unit in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto.