by Alina Kennedy, special to SportsMD.com
Alina Kennedy is a Physiotherapist, Strength & Conditioning Specialist and avid runner with over 10 years clinical experience. She is also the founder of Sprintrehab.com, a website providing Physio rehab and strength training exercise programs for runners.
Alina graduated from the University of South Australia. After moving from her home town of Adelaide, Alina spent 4 years living in Sydney working in several sports Physiotherapy clinics. She’s now based in New York City and works exclusively with runners on all things rehab and performance.
From a young age, we’re taught that stretching is an important part of a fitness routine. Because of this, we come to think that stretching is necessary for preventing injuries and performing well in sport. However, what we don’t realize is that this importance we place on stretching is actually based more on assumption than science.
Over the last 20 years, many sports and medical studies have questioned the effects of stretching. What they’ve found is that surprisingly, stretching doesn’t actually benefit athletes as much as we once thought. In fact, in some instances, it has been even shown to hinder performance.
However, while stretching is not as vital as we thought, there may still be some good reasons to include stretching in your weekly routine. In this article, I’m going to share what we know about stretching from the research, as well as give you some tips from my experience as a Physiotherapist on when and how you should stretch to get the most benefit.
Acute vs. Chronic stretching
Before we dive into all the known effects of stretching, it’s important to note that researchers split stretching into two distinct categories—acute and chronic. Acute stretching is classified as stretching that’s done immediately before or after other exercise, for example, as part of a warm-up or cool down. Chronic stretching on the other hand, is stretching that’s done independent of other exercise and by following a regular, structured program where the sole purpose is increasing flexibility.
This distinction is important because the way you stretch results in very different outcomes.
Most significantly, research shows that it is only chronic stretching that improves flexibility over time. Therefore, if your goal is to develop better range of movement, we know that you need to do regular stretching in addition to other exercise, not just as part of your warm-up routine.
Do Runners Need to Be Flexible?
Does being limber make you a better runner and does it help prevent injuries? While most people will assume that flexibility is a good thing, research actually shows the opposite.
This study7, which looked at 100 recreational runners found that runners with the worst flexibility actually run with the most efficiency. The researchers from this study hypothesized that this is because stiffness creates stability around joints, and this in turn allows runners to naturally run smoother. On the other hand, runners who are hyper-flexible, tend to have a lot of extra movement in their joints which means they have to work much harder to control their movement and run smoothly.
The findings of this study contradict our conventional wisdom on the benefits of flexibility and the overall importance of stretching for runners. And there are two key takeaways from this research: one, that better flexibility does not correlate with better running form. And two, that stability is the most important factor. So whether you are naturally flexible or inflexible, you should focus more on improving your stability and control, rather than your flexibility.
Does Stretching Prevent Injuries?
Another common assumption is that stretching prevents injuries. However, researchers have not found this to be true either. For example, this study11 from the Netherlands looked at the effect of stretching on injury over a 10-week program and reported that stretching had no impact on the prevalence of overuse injuries.
However, while research hasn’t proven stretching to help injuries, anecdotally, runners do report that stretching helps relief pain and discomfort. And because of this, many health professionals still recommend runners do regular stretching in addition to stability and strength training. Especially, if it is something that the runner finds beneficial.
When Should Runners Stretch?
If you’re going to add stretching to your routine, the best time to stretch is after an intense workout (such as a long run), or on your days off.
Do not stretch immediately before running. If you are feeling stiff and uncomfortable, stretch before warming up, at least 15 minutes prior to running.
What Stretches Should Runners Do?
Unfortunately there are no magic stretches, plus as I’ve covered in this article, there is no good science to suggest that any stretch will fix your problems. In my experience as a runner, and my work as a Physiotherapist, I find that doing a regular variety of stretches is best. However, for runners who suffer from a particularly tight or sore area, focus on stretching around that body part.
As a final note I want to emphasize that while research hasn’t shown stretching to be particularly useful for runners, research does consistently show that strength and stability training is. So, if you are currently only stretching as a means to manage pain and injuries, you should consider supplementing that with plenty of strength training in order to get better results.
- Allison et al. 2008, Prolonged Static Stretching Does Not Influence Running Economy Despite Changes in Neuromuscular Function, Journal of Sports Sciences, 26(14), pp1489–1495
- Baxter et al. 2017, Impact of Stretching on the Performance and Injury Risk of Long-Distance Runners, Research in Sports Medicine, 25(1), pp79-90
- Bazyler et al. 2011, The Effects of a Sub-Maximal Warm-Up on Endurance Performance in Trained Male Runners During A 30-Minute Time Trial, Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(1), pp868
- Hayes & Walker, 2007, Pre-Exercise Stretching Does Not Impact Upon Running Economy, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(4), pp1227–1232
- Herbert et al. 2011, Stretching To Prevent or Reduce Muscle Soreness After Exercise: Review, The Cochrane Collaboration, 7, pp1–50
- McHugh & Cosgrave, 2010, To Stretch Or Not To Stretch: The Role of Stretching in Injury and Performance, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, pp169–181
- Gleim et al. 1990, The Influence of Flexibility On The Economy of Walking and Jogging, Journal of Orthopaedic Research, 8(6), pp814–823.
- Nelson et al. 2001, Chronic Stretching and Running Economy, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 11, pp260–265
- Shrier, 2004, Does Stretching Improve Performance? Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(5), pp267–273
- Stone et al, 2006, Stretching: Acute and Chronic? The Potential Consequences, Strength and Conditioning Journal, 28(6), pp66–74
- Van Mechelen et al. 1993, Prevention of Running Injuries By Warm-Up, Cool-Down, and Stretching Exercises, The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 21, pp711–719
- Wallmann, 2012, The Acute Effects of Various Types of Stretching Static, Dynamic, Ballistic and No Stretch of the Iliopsoas on 40 Yard Sprint Times in Recreational Runners, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(5), pp540–547
- Wilson et al. 2010, Effects of Static Stretching on Energy Cost and Running Endurance Performance, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(9), pp2274–2279
- Witvrouw et al. 2004, Stretching and Injury Prevention: An Obscure Relationship, Sports Medicine, 34(7), pp443–449