Runners often get into a rut when it comes to stretching. I see people doing the same stretches, day after day. A hamstring stretch. A calf stretch. A quad stretch. Most often done before running. Almost always static – held for an extended period.
The question is – are they doing any good?
Recent studies seem to have had conflicting or confusing results. Stretching does not appear to have a consistent effect on running performance or injury prevention. In fact, some studies even found an increased risk of injury.
So what does this mean? Is stretching a waste of time? Should we stop stretching?
As a Physical Therapist, I see a direct correlation between people who have specific active range of motion deficits and related recurrent running injuries. Quads or hip flexors that don’t allow the thigh enough backward excursion can be strained as they contract to pull the leg forward during a fast stride. (I did this to myself this year – have been cycling too much and not running enough!) Hamstrings that over-tighten during forward reach, and then are required to contract as the leg is pulled forcefully backward can similarly be injured.
Stretching can help in the above situations – it but it needs to be done effectively. Before running is not the best time to settle down and do a passive stretch. Instead, a thorough warm up, with gradually increasing active range of motion demands, can allow muscles to become more elastic and mobile, reducing risk of injury. Later, after the run, is the time to settle down and do deep, sustained stretches. These can be made more specific by applying direct pressure to restricted tissues while stretching. Some effective techniques used by sports massage therapists can be approximated using a massage ball or foam roller.
In a future Training Tip, I will describe some effective post-run stretches. Please be sure and let me know if you have any areas you would like covered!