Starting at a young age, all athletes, including runners, are encouraged to stretch before they begin playing a sport, participating in a practice, or just going out for a leisurely jog. These days, the questions I receive from my clients are, “Do I really have to stretch?” and also “When am I supposed to stretch, before or after my run?” Stretching in regards to running and injury prevention is a debatable topic, but hopefully the following recommendations will provide some general guidelines when it comes to stretching and running.
First, it is important to know what happens to the body during exercise. When an individual exercises, there are voluntary muscle contractions which increase temperature and energy expenditure throughout the body. In order to meet this demand, the heart must pump harder to increase blood flow through the body and to the muscles in need of oxygenation. With a rise in heart rate comes an increased need for oxygen and a subsequent rise in respiratory rate. While all of this is happening, an individual’s body temperature rises and each of these compensatory mechanisms occurs to regulate the body during this period of increased demand and stress.
Once an individual stops exercising, his/her body slowly returns to its previous state, with a steady decline in body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate until everything returns to the body’s resting level. But, when an individual is in a state of constant movement and then suddenly stops, everything that has been circulating freely in the body settles where it is. Those warm muscles go from a state of constant contraction, warmth, and movement to a state of complete rest.
Let’s use the hip flexor as an example in running. The hip flexor, or Iliopsoas, runs from the low back (lumbar vertebrae) to the thigh bone (femur). This muscle group flexes the hip and leg forward during running or walking. If an individual goes for a 30 minute run, his/her body goes through the same physiological changes I explained above. If that same runner ends his/her run and then sits on the couch (or in the car) for 30 minutes, the body and muscles adjust to this position. As the body temperature returns to normal, the Iliopsoas is now resting in a shortened, flexed position, whereas before it was constantly being flexed and extended during the run. Upon standing this runner may notice feelings of stiffness, soreness, and tightness across the front of the hip or even in the low back. The Iliopsoas went from a period of repetitive contraction to resting status very quickly, and the response is often a decrease in extensibility of the muscle.
So now the question comes up: “When should I stretch and for how long?”
In regards to running, the evidence shows that stretching before running does not have a significant impact on lowering the incidence of running related injuries. However, very little available research looks at the combination of pre-running warm-up activities in conjunction with pre- and post-running stretching.
With a limited amount of research, specific guidelines are difficult to set. However, increased flexibility of the hips and lower half results in an increased available range of motion at any given joint. Adequate range of motion is required in order to run efficiently and without increased strain on the soft tissue structures. This is why stretching is still so highly recommended by health care and sports professionals alike.
My recommendation for runners is to include some form of an aerobic warm-up in their routine, followed by static or dynamic stretching, then their run, followed by stretching after the run. This routine allows muscles to be stretched in a warm state, allowing for increased range of motion during and after running. A study performed by O’Sullivan et al from 2009 also showed that individuals who warmed up aerobically followed by static stretching of their hamstrings showed increased flexibility than those who omitted static stretching and instead performed a dynamic warm-up.
Despite the lack of research supporting the impact of stretching on running injuries, it is still recommended by most health care providers, trainers, and coaches. When looking at injury prevention, a closer look should be taken at an individual’s training schedule. Training schedules are extremely important in regards to long distance running and are one definitive area which can be monitored and tailored to each individual’s needs to optimize performance and decrease the likelihood of injury.
If you have any questions about the importance of dynamic stretching, please contact one of our physical therapists at any one of our convenient Boston area offices by calling 617-536-1161.