Does stretching ease aches and keep you injury-free, or could you be wasting your time?
As runners, we’ve long been told that stretching can help cut our chances of injury, ease the pain of tight muscles, and give us a performance boost by increasing our range of motion. Loads of runners limber up before a run and spend time stretching quads, calves and hamstrings afterwards. Some of us add additional stretch sessions to our training schedules and practice yoga to ease out aching muscles, too.
In short, if there’s a park bench, you can bet a runner will have their leg on it. But have we all been wasting our time? We’re here with the science on stretching to help you know what works and what’s a waste of time.
A stretch too far? The case against
Recent research from the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that stretching may not be that beneficial for runners after all. The research looked at 70 studies on running and performance and found that if you’re injury-free, stretching after a run doesn’t provide any performance gains.
Chris Lortie, a biologist at The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, told the BBC that while stretching may improve your flexibility: “From a performance point of view, there is no benefit, it is not going to make you run faster or better.” He added that many coaches think runners who are too flexible may actually be more at risk of injury too. “It only seems to make sense to stretch if you are recovering from an injury,” said Lortie. “As it helps the muscle fibres elongate as they heal.”
As for easing the pain of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) some studies have found that stretching has a negligible effect.
So is it time to retire the stretching altogether or should we keep on getting flexy? We asked an osteopath for their thoughts.
The expert opinion
Should you stretch before a run?
Heading out for a run when your muscles are stiff and tight is pretty uncomfortable but Hannah Williams, M.Ost, Osteopath and Owner of Burton Joyce Osteopathy in Nottingham, advises against doing traditional static stretches pre-run.
Static stretching – where you hold one stretch for a period of time – can reduce muscle power, strength and explosive performance when done before a workout.
Instead, she advises joint mobilisation exercises, such as high knees, leg swings and butt kicks to prepare the joints and muscles you’re about to use for exercise. This will also increase your heart rate slowly, to help ensure blood is pumping around the body and your muscles are warmed up and ready to go.
Should you stretch after a run?
“Yes, definitely,” says Williams, who recommends stretching immediately after your run and also the following day if it’s been a tough session.
“Stretching after a run keeps your muscles supple and prevents them from shortening. It also increases circulation, which helps reduce and filter out the lactic acid that builds up during exercise causing muscle stiffness and soreness.”
While every runner varies and has their own tight or weak spots, she recommends targeting the hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings and calves and holding each stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds.
Can stretching prevent injury?
The short answer is, yes. “A very tight and overused muscle becomes a weak and vulnerable muscle,” Williams says. “Tight muscles can add additional strain to whatever they’re attached to, which can cause joint pain and compression, alignment and postural issues and inflammation.
“For example, Achilles tendonitis is an extremely common injury for runners. It often develops because the calves are overworked and become chronically tight. This increases the pull and demand on the Achilles tendon, resulting in microtears which become inflamed and the tendon can eventually rupture if not treated.”
She also notes that tight muscles have poor circulation, which can lead to cramping and poor muscle repair.
Can stretching help with existing injuries?
“Yes for sure,” says Williams. “A huge part of rehabbing sports injuries is getting the balance right between having a strong and supple muscle.
“When you tear a muscle, the collagen that is put down to repair the rip in the muscle is disorganised and messy. Gentle stretching helps to correct and realign this collagen network, resulting in better healing and less chance of reinjury of the same spot going forward.
She adds: “Stretching also improves circulation to the affected muscles and tendons, which speeds up healing and recovery.”
Can stretching boost your running performance?
The jury’s out on this one and Williams thinks it depends who you are.
“Stretching on its own in a healthy uninjured and well-trained runner probably wouldn’t impact performance too much,” she says.
“However, if somebody has an old injury or really tight hip flexors or stiff hips, a thorough stretching program could work wonders for freeing up these joints and improving muscle function – in turn improving their running.”
So is stretching worth it for runners?
Most of us enjoy the feeling of a good stretch and, while some studies throw doubt onto the benefits, Williams thinks stretching offers advantages for the majority of recreational runners.
“Many studies focus on serious athletes,” she says. “And it’s important to remember that this isn’t most of us. People who hold down a full-time job and squeeze in a few runs per week need a different fitness and rehab regime.
“Lots of us sit at a desk 9-5 and don’t have the same levels of muscle strength or stamina as a professional athlete, or access to coaching.
“For us, stretching is a way to combat everyday life and allow us to better enjoy our hobbies, injury-free.”
She recommends all runners stretch their hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings and calves, and add strengthening exercises for the same areas and core work to their training regimes.
————————————– Full article written by Charlotte Thomas at Should runners stretch? (runningheroes.com)