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stretchQ: I recently read that stretching before runs is not necessary so I do dynamic movement in my warm-up like lunges. But then I was told that stretching after my runs is bad too, so now I do not know when to stretch! I think if I don’t stretch at all, my muscles will be very sore after my runs.

What do you think? Janice G

Answer

Much of the confusion is down to the fact that what works or feels good for one runner will not necessarily work or feel good for another. As far as ‘stretching’ before a run (and by ‘stretching’ I will assume you are referring to ‘static’ stretching, i.e. holding each stretch position for at least 10 seconds), there is no evidence that it either reduces risk of injury or increases performance.

Some studies show it may even slightly reduce performance. That’s enough reason for me to drop it entirely from my warm up but to the uninjured runner who says it makes them ‘feel’ good I say carry on if you want, but you could be using the time to warm up in a potentially more effective way, like the dynamic lunges you mention. With regards to stretching after a run, research once again fails to show any of the benefits we assume we are getting. For example, there is no evidence it reduces soreness. Some runners actually suffer less soreness by giving up the static stretching.

How? Well, after strenuous physical activity muscles that have been working hard typically have quite a few harmless micro-tears. These micro-tears healing during recovery is what makes us over time get stronger. Trying to pull these micro-tears apart after a run could well lead to an increase in muscle soreness over the next few days and a delay in recovery. In my opinion, soreness after running is more likely evidence that you have either not warmed up properly or you have simply pushed your body very hard.

After a run, my general advice is to lie down, relax and spend five to ten minutes gently circling or opening and closing joints, from ankles up to neck. This gentle ‘pumping’ of the joints can promote flushing in and out of fluid and may well guide new muscle fibre growth which is what recovery is all about. Many runners also believe that stretching reduces risk of injury.

This is almost impossible to prove as there are way too many other factors that could be responsible. But let’s remember that distance running really doesn’t require that much flexibility. How many times when running do you need to touch your toes or do a high kick?! If for some reason you have a reduced range of movement in a specific muscle group then yes, specific stretching to restore that range could help, but as a method of general injury prevention, I believe too many runners spend too much time trying to achieve a range of movement they will never need.

I hope this information is of use to you, Janice. Try the gentle ‘circles & pumping movements’ I have described above and let us know how it goes!

Matt Phillips is a Running Performance Coach & Injury Specialist at StrideUK & Studio57clinic. Follow Matt on Twitter @sportinjurymatt