To Stretch or Not to Stretch
Why Many Implement This Pre-Run Routine Improperly
(From the Nov/Dec 2019 issue of New England Runner magazine)
by Coach Pete Rea, Conn. native and coach of On ZAP Endurancein Blowing Rock, NC
Amongst all the hotly debated issues in the global community of distance running three are undoubtedly the most contentious. The first is the issue of weight lifting for runners and its benefits, or lack thereof. The second issue is related to mileage: which is more effective—higher volume lower intensity training or lower volume in which intensity is much higher? Lastly is the issue of stretching.
Long assumed to be beneficial for performance, injury prevention and overall athletic longevity, recent research has not only called those assumptions into question but questioned stretching’s performance benefits entirely. Let’s dive into what is now known.
In 2004 Arthur Lydiard, the legendary New Zealand coach of multiple Gold Medalists and World Record Holders, took his last American Tour. During that tour Lydiard shared with packed houses all he knew and had experienced in his 50-year coaching career.
During Lydiard’s final week on tour, and a week prior to his death, more than 300 running fanatics packed the Charlotte Running Company in North Carolina to hear the running gospel of Arthur Lydiard. Late in the evening a young high school coach asked the 87 year-old Lydiard about his stretching routine for his athletes. His response was pure Lydiard, “stretching is crap and will get you hurt,” he said. “The only thing stretching does is make your muscles looser and less explosive.” The silence in the room was deafening.
Arthur was quick to point out to a now quiet room that in 50 years of coaching his athletes, who stretched little or not at all, were rarely injured, whereas those who stretched consistently were often hurt. As we all know, however, cause does notequal effect or, in this case, effect is not always related to the often cherry-picked cause, and in the sport performance world research is needed, and it is beginning to become increasingly clear that the static stretching utilized by the baby boomers provides little performance benefit.
Research on the Subject of Stretching
The Atlanta based Centers of Disease Control and Prevention found in a March 2004 study that runners who stretched were just as likely to be injured as those who did not stretch at all, no more no less.
Another similar study looked at more than 1,000 serious male marathoners (those running more than 50 miles weekly) and found that those in the group who stretched on a regular basis—whether before or after running—actually had a 33-percent greater likelihood of injury than runners who didn’t stretch at all.
And a 2010 Florida State University study took things even further in finding that trained distance runners who did a series of static stretches before a time trial wasted about 5-percent more energy and covered 3-percent less distance than runners who didn’t stretch at all.
The latter study highlights the most effective and long heard sentiments of anti stretching advocates, that of the “slinky” theory in which muscles, like a slinky, are less reactive when loose rather than tight. Dr. Robert Vaughan, long time researcher at the University of North Texas has long pushed this “tighter tissue is more explosive tissue” concept. “Tighter muscles are actually more explosive and more reactive than looser muscles,” Vaughan told a group of high performance coaches at a USATF clinic in December of 2008.
The Middle and Most Effective “Middle Ground” of the Modern Era
In the 1990s and early 2000s Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners rewrote the distance running record books with jaw dropping performances. As a result coaches from around the world made their way to training camps in places such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Iten, Kenya to study all aspects of their training, including their warm-up routine.
And while static stretching was in no way a formal part of the East African warm up, active/dynamic mobility and isolated stretching was. These movements, based largely on the concept of engaged muscle swings to improve reactivity after tissue is already warm has become the now accepted norm around the world and the most effective for distance runners of all ages and for all events. How would such a warm up look?
Jog very easily for 8-10 minutes (2:00-3:00 per mile slower than 10k race effort).
Jog another 3-4 minutes a bit quicker (1:30 slower than 10k race effort).
Stop then gently swing each leg forward and back x 10 (2 sets) with legs at a slight bend.
Repeat swinging motion with both hands on a wall so that the swinging is with legs in front of you laterally side to side (each leg x 10 – 2 sets).
Add 45 seconds of light low intensity skipping (yes skipping, think gym class 4th grade).
All of this should be implemented prior to any run which includes anyharder running. Easy runs should simply begin slowly and move forward bit by bit as muscles warm.
Is All Stretching Bad?
In the simplest of terms no; all stretching in all areas is not detrimental. While distance runners who are generally less flexible have better running economy, certain areas such as the hips and gluteus medius muscles have been shown, when tighter, to directly cause imbalances. Furthermore, decreased flexibility due to age (particularly for runners over 60) can indeed compromise performance, and for these older athletes functional strength exercises will keep joints capable of full range of motion.
Research on the performance benefits of stretching is by no means complete; however, now—nearly two generations after the first running boom—it is safe to say that deep static stretching before running, particularly before harder running, provides no added benefit and should be avoided. Relaxed warm ups with simple functional movements are far more effective and will decrease the likelihood of injury. Train hard and intelligently.