Stretching muscles has long been considered an integral part of a distance runner’s training program. It is thought that stretching will help prepare the runner for their activity and allow them to do it more efficiently, it will improve performance, or it will decrease injury risk. In recent years however, it has been suggested that the tendency to incorporate stretching into the regimes of athletes was not based on science but on assumption. A 2017 article by Baxter and associates, published in the journal of Research In Sports Medicine, reviewed the evidence for stretching on performance and injury risk of long distance runners. In this article, I would like to summarize some of the key findings.
Does Stretching Improve Performance?
Interestingly, studies have shown that elite endurance runners are less flexible than their non-elite counterparts. Could it be that inflexibility helps runners run more efficiently? A bit of stiffness may actually help with stability during running by decreasing the energy expenditure to stabilize the pelvic region and it has also been suggested that tightness in the muscles and tendons could increase elastic storage and therefore reduce oxygen demand. Therefore, the majority of literature that has investigated acute stretching (stretching done immediately before running) and endurance running argues that stretching causes a decrease in running economy. Not something you want to happen prior to a training run or racing event! The authors concluded that there is little to suggest that acute stretching has properties that can enhance performance for endurance athletes and in fact may have the opposite effect. The research suggests that endurance athletes may be best reducing their warm-up routine to low intensity, progressive run and removing stretching practices completely.
Does Stretching Reduce Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
We have all worked out hard and experienced muscle soreness a day or two afterward. Common belief is that stretching will help get rid of this soreness. However, the research finds that similar to the effects on performance, there is no evidence found which suggests that stretching has the ability to reduce either the presence, intensity, or duration of DOMS after exercise.It is recommended that athletes suffering from DOMS investigate other prevention methods such as massage, icing or hot and cold therapy.
Does Stretching and Help Prevent Injury?
In looking at the studies on stretching and injury prevention, a distinction needs to be made between distance running and highly-explosive type running (sprinting). The endurance runner is most at risk for chronic injuries such as illiotibial band friction, achilles tendinopathy, stress fractures, and plantar fasciitis whereas, someone involved in explosive-type running which requires more muscle output, injuries are more often muscle related. Multiple studies have shown that a stretching program has no impact on the risk of chronic injury in endurance runners. The authors concluded that stretching provides no significant assistance in the reduction of chronic overuse injuries and therefore is not a useful injury preventative strategy for endurance athletes.
So, What Should You Do?
If you enjoy stretching and it makes you feel good, go ahead and keep doing it if you have the time. However, the research would suggest that you not do it before your running event as it may have a negative impact on your performance. Instead use a gradual warm up of running and maybe some dynamic movements. To minimize your risk of injury, monitor your training load so that you are not making big jumps in mileage or intensity before your body has had time to adapt to the stressors that you are putting it through. Also, do not let stretching take up time that could be better spent on activities that have been shown to help with reducing injury risk. These include cross training (doing other endurance activities) and strength training-even within your competitive season. More on this topic in will be coming in a different post.
This information may contradict some of the the things you have been told previously or beliefs that you have had for a long time. If you have any questions about what is best to help with your training/competition and/or injury risk minimization, feel free to contact me.
Thanks for reading,