Running Myth or Not – Should you stretch before running or not?

Running Myth or Not – Should you stretch before running or not?

Also known as “Stretching before running prevents running injuries.”

When I think back to middle school P.E class and the number of times Mr Y. made the class sit in the cold wet grass to stretch before we ran in circles around the school soccer field, I still shudder a little.

Granted, that was back in the late 1970s (yes I’m that old) and sports science and sports performance was still a gleam in many a  future sports medicine specialist’s eye, but this running myth that you should stretch before running still seems to still have legs…

Should you stretch before running or not?

Depends on why you’re stretching.

If you are doing a long (60 seconds or longer) static stretch before running to reduce the risk of an injury, you can stop right now.

That hurdler’s stretch and the quad or calf stretches you been doing before all those runs probably aren’t going to reduce the chance of a running injury if that’s all you’re doing before your runs.

hamstring exercises for intermediate runners
To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question…

The sports medicine research shows that there really is no risk reduction in running injuries with the typical long-held static stretch before running. 

What is static stretching?

Static stretching is the old “stretch and hold” for 30 or 60 seconds stretch that most of us are familiar with. You take a muscle to its full length and hold that position for 30 to 60 seconds to feel that “stretching” sensation that good old Mr Y would tell us would make us run faster (it didn’t).

This doesn’t mean that all static stretching is useless for runners.

There is some newer research that suggests that static stretches held for a shorter length of time and followed by dynamic stretches and sport-specific exercises can be beneficial or at least not have a negative impact on running performance. 1

Static stretching does seem to increase range of motion, but that may not be a performance benefit for some runners. The act of running and the foot strike on the ground requires the release of stored energy in the hamstrings and other muscles to act as a spring and help move us forward. It’s just that the longer static stretching before running doesn’t really have the evidence behind it for sports specialists to continue to recommend it.

So being yogi flexible where you can bring that leg around the back of your head might be a cool party trick, but its probably not going to help you become a better runner.

What is dynamic stretching?

Dynamic stretching is a more functional view of stretching where the muscles are slowly taken through their range of motion. In  dynamic stretching, the “stretch” is not held at any point. 

Think of the hopping and skipping you see soccer players do as they warm up before a match. 

They aren’t doing that to help with their flopping and diving performances during the match. The dynamic stretches are designed to help raise body temperature and help with proper neurological firing patterns of the muscles.

Dynamic stretching for runners would include doing the “high knees” or “butt kicks” at a slow jogging pace. Starting to add a dynamic stretch before running routine might be better than static stretching.

How long should you do dynamic stretching before running?

Recommendations for how long to use dynamic stretching is very sport or activity-specific. A hockey goalie or gymnast would need more time (and different dynamic stretches) to warm up than a runner.

Runners can take 5 to 10 minutes before their run to do the “butt kicks” or “high knees”

Achilles heel stretch runner

Whats the difference between static and dynamic stretching?

Think of static stretching as a photo and dynamic stretching as a video. Static stretches are held in one position while the dynamic stretch is constantly moving through a range of motion.

Does static stretching improve running performance?

Most studies would say static stretching does not improve running performance. 2 The increase in flexibility from the static stretching before running may actually decrease running performance depending on how long the static stretching is performed. 

In studies where the static stretches were held for 60 seconds or longer, there was a decrease in running speed. For static stretches that were held for shorter amounts of time, the results were mixed. none of the stretching studies  in runners demonstrated any profound improvement of running performance or speed

Does static stretching decrease running injuries?

Current sports research about the effects of static stretching on running injuries hasn’t shown any clear benefit that static stretches before running decreases running injuries. 3

But I thought flexibility was good?!?

Let’s take about the difference between flexibility and mobility. When most runners talk about wanting to be flexible, what they really mean (and should be saying instead) is that they want to have good mobility. That’s a slightly different way of thinking of the stretching in running issue, but I think it makes better sense.

Interestingly, there have been studies that found that elite long-distance runners that had less flexibility actually had better running economy. 4 5

The difference between flexibility and mobility

Flexiblity usually refers to the end of range of motion of the muscle. When you try to bend forward to touch your toes, can you put your hands flat on the ground or are you stuck with your hands only going to mid-shin and having to bend your knees to “stretch” any further. So think of flexibility as more of a static, end of the motion, process

When we take about mobility, we really mean how well the muscles move a joint. So mobility is more of a dynamic movement, as the muscle moves through its full range of motion. 

 How smooth or fluid is the action of the muscles on the joint? You can still have a lack of flexibility, meaning limited range of motion, but if that motion is smooth and without any restrictions, you can still have good mobility of the joint.

Research
  1. Chaabene H, et al in Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats, Front Physiol, 2019; 10: 1468. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6895680/[]
  2. Nelson A, et al, Chronic Stretching and Running Economy, Scand J Med Sci Sports 2001 Oct;11(5):260-5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11696209/[]
  3. Thacker, S., Gilchrist, J., Stroup, D., & Kimsey, D. (2003). The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, 36(3), 371–378. [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar][]
  4. Posthumus, M., Schwellnus, M., & Collins, M. (2011). The COL5A1 gene: A novel marker of endurance running performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(4), 584–589.[]
  5. Saunders, P., Pyne, D., Telford, R., & Hawley, J. (2004). Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Medicine, 34(7), 465–485. [Crossref][PubMed][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar][]

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