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To Stretch or Not to Stretch: That is the Question

The jury is still out when it comes to stretching in the running community. I have been running for almost 30 years with multiple coaches on numerous competitive levels, all of them told us to stretch daily to get faster and avoid injury. Yet many incredibly competitive runners never stretch and never seem to get injured. Is there any proof that this common recommendation is actually valid? What do the studies say about stretching? Does it really prevent injury? Will it make me faster? Again, the experts really don't agree on much! In most arguments between stretchers and non-stretchers, it inevitably comes down to "stretching helps prevent injuries" and "stretching is a leading cause of injuries in runners".

The motion of running, repeated over many years, strengthens and shortens several posterior muscles. The most affected are the calves, the hamstrings and the lower back muscles. These muscles play a primary role in lifting the feet and moving the runner forward. Exercise physiologists blame shortened muscles for a reduced range of motion, decreased athletic performance and increased risk of injury. To add insult to injury, the aging process contributes to further loss of joint and muscle flexibility. The majority of runners and coaches believe stretching improves performance and reduces the risk of injury. In the meantime, experts disagree on the benefits and dangers of stretching. While many experts credit stretching with numerous benefits, improper stretching remains the second leading cause of running injuries! So, if we believe in stretching; what is the most effective method?

First and Foremost; the warm up and cool down should never be optional in your running routine. Cold muscles are at the highest risk for injury; by warming up and increasing the temperature of your muscles they will be more flexible and have an increased speed of motion. Warming up can loosen your muscles and soft tissue as much as 20 percent. The cool down allows blood to continue flowing through your muscles, working its way more slowly from a high level of exertion to its normal resting condition. Build stretching into your regular schedule, both before and after your daily run; after warm up and as part of your cool down. Take the time, it's worth it!

The Do's and Don'ts of Stretching:

Do:

1. Warm up prior to stretching. Walk or slowly jog at least 10-15 minutes prior to stretching.
2. Slowly add stretching to your workout slowly. Gently stretch a little more each day. Your muscles can actually stretch almost 1.5 times their length, but if you try to achieve this all at once you will hurt yourself!
3. Relax. Tension makes it almost impossible to stretch effectively
4. Breathe. That may sound easy but try to breathe from you diaphragm or stomach
5. Make it a routine, try to stretch every day, even if you don't run. Follow the same order of stretches every time for consistency
6. Listen to your body. Some days, less is more!

Don't:

1. Don't bounce!! Bouncing risks pulling or tearing the muscle you're trying to stretch and relax. Muscles must be stretched gradually.
2. Don't hold your breath.
3. Don't stretch if it hurts.
4. Don't forcibly stretch an injured muscle. Be gentle and less is more.
5. Don't hurry through your routine.
6. Don't listen to your friends opinions about the best technique for stretching. Try them all and decide what works for you.

Bottom line: Most experts agree that stretching reduces muscle soreness after running and results in better athletic performance. Gentle stretching after a race or intense workout can also promote healing and lactic acid removal from the muscles. Stretching is most effective when performed several times each week; a minimum of one stretching session per week is sufficient to maintain flexibility. Most coaches and runners believe in stretching before and after every workout. The experts never agree on much, but the majority seems to feel that stretching is beneficial to runners if done properly. So follow the precautions outlines and always warm up prior to stretching. Your body will thank you and who knows, you may even get a little faster!