Does stretching help distance runners or actually do more harm than good? I think that this question has actually taken over the #1 ranking on controversial training topics from “is weight training a positive or negative for runners”. There have been countless studies done by PhD’s, sports medicine professionals, running organizations – you name it – and the results are virtually split down the middle. 50% of those who have spent time studying this issue deem traditional “static” stretching as doing nothing to prevent injury, while the other 50% laud stretching for its ability to properly warm muscles and connective tissue prior to exercise and also reduce soreness after activity.
So, what’s the verdict? As many of you who have been reading for a while have probably discovered by now, I am a big believer that what works for one individual is not necessarily a magic potion for another. We are all very different in our musculature make-up, our strength, injury history, running technique and form – as well as how “hard” we push ourselves during a workout. All of these factors contribute to our level of soreness after exercise, how quickly our bodies can rebound as well as our injury risk. All of that said – I am a “stretcher”.
I must admit, I have read a lot of the various studies and not a single one really influenced my decision to stretch before and after runs any more than another. Coming back from my most recent shin issues – stretching actually became part of my physical therapy, prescribed to me by Dr. Jim Fernandez at Austin Sports Medicine. If Lance Armstrong trusts them to treat him while he is in Austin - I figure I should probably listen to Jim.
But when it comes to stretching I have to say it is our 14+ year-old Schipperke Kayla who convinced me that it is the right thing to do. Each morning before my training run I have a few daily rituals. Because I am an early morning runner and I would like to stay happily married, I check the weather forecast for 6 a.m. before going to bed the night before a run and lay out the appropriate running shoes, socks, shorts/tights, shirt, hat, gloves as well as my GPS, Ipod and Body Glide (more on this critical training item in a later post). This allows me to sneak out of bed in the dark, close the bathroom doors and get dressed allowing Dawn to get some additional shut-eye. Happy wife = Happy life.
After getting ready Kayla will meet me at the bedroom door for her quick trip to the back-porch (she rarely leaves the porch on the first attempt at going outside) and then returns to get her morning treat. The treat being her first priority of the day. Kayla will then meet me on the floor of the family room for our ritual morning stretching session. What started out as something that was just amusing a few years ago is now a daily routine. As I am crossing and uncrossing my legs, stretching my back and loosening my hamstrings and calf muscles Kayla is alongside me on the floor rocking back and forth with her rear end in the air, paws out in front stretching her legs and back. If Kayla knows that stretching is paramount to her active lifestyle, why shouldn’t I do the same thing?
So what does Kayla know that the all of the PhD.’s can’t agree on? I believe that the controversy stems from trying to first agree on why runners or anyone really should stretch. Is it to prevent injury? Improve performance? Simply because it feels good? For me it is simply all of the above.
The goal of stretching is to lengthen a muscle and move the corresponding joints through the full range of motion. This allows both the contractile (muscle and tendon) and the non-contractile (ligament and joint capsule) structures to lengthen. This lengthening effect has quite a few benefits for me as a distance runner.
I believe personally that most athletes and doctors who say that stretching can do more harm than good are really talking about stretching poorly. There are definitely some incorrect ways to stretch – and it is these types of stretches that I believe are at the root of all of this controversy. Because cold muscles are most susceptible to pulls and tears – it is important to be very cautious if you are going to stretch pre-run. You should also allow for a proper cool-down before jumping right into your post run stretching routine. There are some great stretching exercises at: http://www.coolrunning.com/engine/2/2_1/126.shtml
As far as stretching do’s and don’ts in this runners opinion:
Do Not …
Hopefully we will all live a long, healthy and happy life like Kayla where looking forward to our next treat is what it is all about.