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Within the running community, nothing is more likely to open up a hornet’s nest of a debate than stretching. It is the running world’s archetypal “old chestnut”.
Should people stretch before they run, or after they run? Or both? The scientific evidence seems to be conflicting and everybody with a love of running seems to have an opinion. So who do we believe? Or should we simply trust our instincts? One thing is certain: the traditional view that stretching should be a compulsory part of a runner’s routine is being increasingly challenged…
Theories and studies
Theories abound about the energy storage potential of floppy tendons and the torque-producing talent of stretched muscle fibres. But some experts simply believe a lot of people stretch because they’ve been brought up to believe that it is the right thing to do. So what is this steady accumulation of evidence to suggest static stretching may be a hindrance rather than a help?
Well, most Kenyan endurance athletes don’t tend to stretch at all. And they’re pretty good at this running lark! But there also seems to be a growing number of scientific studies that claim that stretching beforehand makes you run more slowly and less efficiently.
One study from Florida State University earlier this year effectively sounded the death knell for static stretching before running. The paper, which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, examined 10 male runners. Before a treadmill test run, they either sat quietly for 16 minutes or did 16 minutes of static stretching. They then ran for 60 minutes on the treadmill – the first 30 minutes at a relaxed pace and the last 30 minutes as fast as they could. The results? Eight of the 10 runners performed better without stretching. On average, the stretchers hit a maximum heart rate of five beats per minute higher than the non-stretchers in the final 30 minutes. In other words, the stretchers were working harder but covering less distance.
The study concluded: “Stretching before an endurance event may lower endurance performance and increase the energy cost of running.”
I’ve received so much conflicting advice over the years. For example, one osteopath has told me not to bother stretching beforehand because it is so easy to pull a muscle or tweak a hamstring. But a respected sports injury specialist that I know well claims quick stretching of the calves, hamstrings and quads is vital before taking your first meaningful strides. Then there is the guy in my local running shop who swears by his own pre-run stretching routine. But the chap at my daughter’s athletics club talks about stretching as if it is the Devil incarnate.
So I’ve actually given up listening to others. Instead I listen to my own body and that seems to work for me. I don’t bother stretching before I go for a run but I do make sure I’m fully warmed up. Warming up doesn’t involve stretching the hamstrings, glutes, calves or quads. It simply involves a brisk walk to the end of the lane and back (about half a mile). Then, I always set off at a gentle jog for the first half a mile before getting into my rhythm. That works for me.
But I am a staunch believer in stretching AFTER I run. For me, post-run stretching is part and parcel of my warm-down. I walk around slowly for five minutes or so before making sure I stretch my calves, quads and hamstrings. I hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds and also breathe deeply from the diaphragm (not shallow breathing). I’m convinced this post-stretch routine helps my overall recovery and reduces muscle fatigue.
I don’t bother with any other stretches. Maybe I should? But my routine works for me and I’m happy with that.
The very latest study seems to support my stance on stretching. In a clinical trial, USA Track and Field split 3,000 runners into two groups. They asked some to stretch before they ran and others not to. But both groups ended up with the same risk of injury – 16%. Perhaps the main finding was that runners who normally stretched but were told not to for the trial had twice the injury risk as regular stretchers who stayed on their routine.
So the survey’s most crucial conclusion was: “If you’re used to stretching, keep doing it. If you’re not, there’s no need to start.”
Who said common sense was dead…