From a young age many of us have been taught that stretching prior to exercise helps prevent injury. However, with the ongoing debate about whether to stretch statically or dynamically, and before or after running, many runners are not sure on how to choose the best stretching strategy for optimal results and reduced injury.
As physiotherapists we are regularly asked questions such as:
Is it better to stretch before or after running?
Does stretching help reduce injury or pain?
Can stretching improve running performance? and
What is the best type of stretching?
It is apparent that stretching still causes plenty of confusion.
Common types of stretching.
The most commonly performed techniques can be broken down into static and dynamic stretches. (though there are many different variations of these.)
Static stretches are the type many will be familiar with from childhood sports; passive positions held for a period of time, usually twenty to thirty seconds, aiming to gradually lengthen the muscles. Typical examples are the sit and reach type stretches, such as the hamstring stretch.
As a physiotherapist I find that because these stretches can be boring, people often tend to rush through them reducing any potential effectiveness.
Dynamic stretches are a bit more complicated, involving stretching the muscles and joints whilst moving. In dynamic stretching the limbs are purposefully moved into a lengthened position, preferably one that is activity or sports specific. Examples include slow jogging on the spot while bringing the knees up the chest or kicking the heels to the backside, or a slow walking lunge.
Which should I choose and what does the research say?
Up to date research suggests that the common practice of static stretching before an athletic performance such as running may not be that useful in reducing overall injury rates. A study appearing in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport which analysed over 100 research papers published between 1966-2010 found that generally, static stretching before activity should be avoided as the only form of warm up. The researchers asserted that static stretching alone directly prior to exercise may have no additional benefit to injury prevention and may actually have a negative effect on maximal muscle strength and explosive performance.
Though other studies have found that static stretching may have a specific benefit to tendon and muscle injury only which may be of interest to runners, it is apparent that the best approach to take prior to running is an effective warm up session.
The warm up session should consist of a combination of low intensity aerobic activity for example a walk or very light jog (even on the spot) followed by dynamic (preferably activity specific) movements/stretching. The warm up is a crucial component of any exercise performance, especially prior to high demand activities such as sprinting and long distance running, and is important in preparing for optimal performance and reduced injury.
As the total investment of time should be similar regardless of whether a person chooses static or dynamic stretching, there are few excuses for missing a proper warm up.
Examples of dynamic stretches for running:
Some examples of dynamic stretching include walking lunges, walking bringing the knees up to chest or kicking heels to the backside and standing high kicks.
What you need to know:
• All dynamic movements should be performed slowly and with control through full available range of motion without jerky movements, over-stretching or pain.
• Each movement can be repeated a number of times for thirty seconds to one minute each as a rough guide.
• Individual programs will vary depending upon a persons requirements, as there are many more different options.
• Please see your physiotherapist of exercise physiologist to discuss your individual needs if you are unsure
Heels to backside
Knees to chest
Side to side lunges
Is there a place for static stretching anywhere?
It is generally accepted that improved flexibility can play a role in reducing injuries overall and for that reason static stretching can be used regularly as part of a healthy lifestyle or training plan at times other than directly before exercise. Read more.
It is encouraged to make an effort to stretch regularly as part of a healthy lifestyle to combat the physical demands of modern life and the negative stresses than we place on our bodies through, for example, long periods of sitting at work or using a computer. A stretching break can also provide a great escape from the hustle and bustle of life and to relax the mind, all potentially reducing the overall likelihood of injury when it comes time to perform.
This is general advice only so before getting started your physiotherapist can help you, whether you are a casual runner or an elite athlete to guide you specifically on what may be most suitable for your needs in formulating a stretching or exercise plan, or to help you address a specific complaint or injury.