Hold Me, Hold Me! Or Not? The Skinny About Stretching Before and/or After A Run
What’s the deal? Are you supposed to hold your stretches when you are warming up and cooling down, or not? Is stretching even beneficial at all for runners? What about all those people we see jumping around and swinging their legs and arms before starting a run; what are they up to?
Stretching your muscles before running has traditionally just been ‘something we do’, but are we actually doing any good by stretching before we head out? What about stretching afterwards? The research around stretching and its benefits to help prepare for physical activity has certainly changed over the years. As a budding (or seasoned) runner it’s important to ensure you are doing the right type of stretching at the right time in order to both prepare your muscles for running, and also help prevent injury.
For many years the traditional ‘static’ stretch has been the gold standard of stretching. Static stretches are those common stretches we typically see in advertisements and that we have all been taught at some time in our past; you lean or pull your body one way in order to feel a tug at your muscles and then hold this position for a certain length of time in order to ‘warm up’ a specific muscle. Interestingly, although these stretches are still commonly done before running, there is now a plethora of research that negates these types of stretches before intense physical activity, such as running. The evidence shows that static stretches can actually leave your muscles and tendons more at risk of injury during your run! The simplest explanation for this evidence is that by holding your muscles and tendons in a prolonged stretch position just before running, you ‘override’ their ability to naturally spring back as you engage in your run. It is sort of like pulling on an elastic band for a prolonged period; it will eventually lose its natural recoil and therefore its effectiveness. For runners, the natural recoil of your muscles and tendons is important to help push you off the ground, propel you repeatedly forward, and keep your running technique energy-efficient and as light as possible on your muscles and joints. Poor muscle recoil not only decreases energy efficiency, but it increases the amount of relative time that your body puts through the ground each time your foot strike; this increased pounding on the body can in turn lead to more injuries. Super flexible people actually make quite inefficient runners and are at a higher risk of injury from running. Bottom line: static stretching before a run is not recommended or supported by current research. So should you stretch at all before a run? Yes! Please welcome dynamic stretching to the stage!
‘Dynamic’ stretching is when you engage in rapid movements of the muscles to prepare them for the rapid movements they are about to engage in during any intense physical activity. Swinging your legs and arms or doing any other active motion in order to feel the quick tug at your muscles has been shown to be more effective than static stretching in preparing your muscles for vigorous and intense body activities such as running. Dynamic stretches before running could include activities such as brisk walking, simulated running, hopping, jumping, squats, jumping jacks, lunges, calf raises, arm swings, trunk twists or anything similar. Dynamic stretching helps to effectively prepare your muscles for running as it closely mimics the recoil motion of the muscles and tendons that will imminently occur when you begin your run. Dynamic stretching before a run does not put your muscles and tendons at the same risk of injury as doing static stretching before a run does.
So is there ever a time that runners should still be doing those classic static stretches? Yes! Static stretching is still very useful and effective if you have a specific injury that you are nursing, if your flexibility is so limited that it puts you at risk for injury, or if your flexibility is asymmetrical and you are working on improving the symmetry in one specific area. In any case, it is still recommended that you do not do your static stretching before your run, but rather reserve it for after your run (during your cool down) or for any other training time outside of your warm up.
Stretching is certainly a key component for any runner. The skinny is to ensure you are doing the right type of stretch at the right time; use dynamic stretching to prepare your muscles before a run, and save those long-hold static stretches for your cool down and to help work out any injuries or asymmetries in your body. Stretching properly will ensure you hit the end of your run feeling energized and looking forward to the next run instead of feeling an injury brewing and looking forward to the next bench!
Written By: Twyla Pitman, Registered Physiotherapist Physio2U
Twyla has an ongoing desire to help others make positive and meaningful changes to their health, fitness and overall quality of life. Twyla decided on physiotherapy as a career to help the most important people in her life, such as her parents. Twyla sees a little bit of her family in each client and as such, treats each client like family. In recent years Twyla has had a particular focus on supporting the senior population with their physiotherapy needs. Previous to this her career saw her running away with Cirque du Soleil as a traveling physiotherapist. She toured for five years across Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Uniquely, Twyla’s career has also led her into writing patient-friendly articles that are used to educate clients in clinics across North America and Australia. Twyla holds a Bachelor of Physical Education in Athletic Therapy, an after degree in Physiotherapy along with numerous certifications. You can read Twyla’s full bio on the Physio2U website under Teams/Physiotherapists.
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