In the past, runners commonly accepted the fact static stretching was necessary and beneficial. We would bend over and bounce in an effort to touch our toes or swing our leg up on a bench to stretch out our hamstrings before a run.
Over the years, however, exercise science has evolved so we know this type of stretching is not ideal and usually not beneficial for cold muscles. Stretching may eventually make you more flexible (if that’s your goal), but this doesn’t necessarily correlate with faster running or improved injury prevention.
As a runner, it’s important to distinguish between active and passive stretching, and mobility and flexibility. Knowing how each of these fits in to your training helps improve your running efficiency and allows you to use your time in a way that’s most constructive for your training.
MOBILITY VERSUS FLEXIBILITY
“Stretching” is a broad term that may conjure up a variety of images depending on who you ask. Do you picture a gymnast or dancer, contorting his or her body into unfathomable positions? Or do you envision an elite runner with a powerful stride and finishing kick, moving efficiently through the final 400 meters of a 5K race?
While the elite runner may not be the first image that pops into your head, that’s the ultimate goal to strive toward if you’re a runner. The majority of runners may never be that fast or fluid, but everyone can work toward improving their running efficiency. To do that, you need to focus on mobility rather than flexibility.
Flexibility is passive. It’s the ability to achieve a large range of motion in your joints. For some of us that comes naturally, while for others it’s far more challenging. The good news is runners don’t need extreme flexibility.
Instead, mobility is far more important as it applies to your running. Mobility is the ability to move through a normal range of motion with strength, and it’s active rather than passive.
Dynamic mobility exercises prepare your body for the movements you will perform when you start to run. What does this look like in practice? While there are endless options for mobility routines, two common and effective options include lunges (in a variety of planes of motion) along with leg swings (both front-to-back and side-to-side).
PITFALLS OF STATIC STRETCHING
When it comes to warming up and injury prevention, studies have shown static stretching provides minimal benefits. If you choose this mode of stretching, do it after your workout. Though static stretching eventually makes you more flexible, this doesn’t necessarily make you less prone to injury since most injuries happen within the normal range of motion.
High levels of flexibility may actually make you less efficient as a runner, since flexibility has been shown to have an inverse relationship to running economy. If you envision your legs as a rubber band, higher tension means your legs have more spring to push you forward more quickly. As that rubber band loosens, your legs may become less “springy” and your speed may decline.
BENEFITS OF ACTIVE MOBILITY
Runners and coaches used to believe static stretching would help them warm up and make them less prone to injury, but these lines of thinking are proving to be outdated. In contrast to passive, static stretching, active (or dynamic) mobility provides a multitude of benefits as a warmup, including the following:
- Raises your heart rate
- Lubricates your joints
- Increases elasticity in your connective tissues
- Primes muscles for work
- Raises your core temperature
A dynamic warmup followed by 1–2 miles of easy running is the best way to prepare your body for whatever type of run you may be tackling. Over time, active mobility routines have the potential to make you stronger, more efficient and ultimately less injury prone.
IS THERE A PLACE FOR STATIC STRETCHING
If you love to hold a stretch, never fear. There can still be a place for static stretching in your training routine. Stretching can help boost feelings of recovery and relaxation, which are also important components of a well-rounded training regimen. Static stretching is safest and most effective after a run, when your muscles are already loose and warm.
As you stretch, work within your own range of motion and don’t push too far or too hard. Muscles can contract defensively when held in a stretched position for too long, so hold the stretch for less than a minute and don’t do any “bouncing” movement within the stretch itself.
In addition to promoting feelings of well-being, static stretching may improve blood flow to tight, sore areas. Focus on the major running muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. Foam rolling can be used to complement your stretching routine and may provide additional benefits.
Exercise science has taught us that when it comes to running efficiency and injury prevention, static stretching will never be the best place to focus your efforts. While it may find a place in your recovery routine, focus your energy on dynamic mobility to stay healthy, strong and get the most out of your running.