One of the bad habits runners immediately develop is warming up with a static stretch. The reason for this remains elusive. Perhaps, it may stem from Runner’s World ie “The Complete Guide to Stretching for Runners”, or the endless amounts of stretching photos associated with running. The significance of this bad habit is that it is substituted for a proper warm-up leading to decrements in performance and potentially a greater risk of injury. This article intends to expose the faulty intuition behind static stretching (STS) in running and introduce a warm-up that is tailored-fit for a run.
Static Stretching and Performance
To understand why STS harms the runner you must understand what it does to the muscle- it promotes flexibility by decreasing stiffness. Imagine the human body transforming itself into a pair of springs when it runs: will it make sense to loosen the coils if you want to run faster? Your answer should be “no.” Research into STS has found that increased flexibility from stretching decreases the elastic energy received from each stride. Mechanisms for this arise from both structural muscle-tendon proteins and neural activation. Not only does it become inefficient by wasting energy, your lower extremities may become less stabilized and thus, the body will activate more muscles to enable stabilization. One particular study found that when comparing runners who performed STS before a run against those who didn’t stretch, there was a substantial difference (between 200–500 metres difference at the end of 30 minutes) in their run times and their perceived level of difficulty.
Think of the springs as a passive energy system- the body wants to re-absorb as much force as possible when it rebounds from the ground in the next stride when you run. If this passive system is tampered with and less energy is re-absorbed, the body needs to generate additional energy from another source to make-up for it. This additional energy comes from recruiting more muscles which leads to earlier onsets of fatigue.
Now look at what people around you who usually stretch: they are stretching their calves and their hip flexors and extensors. These muscle groups contain tendons which are key elements of the passive energy system. Elongating these tendons and increasing their flexibility via STS will decrease their stiffness and uncoil the springs. This is why the most economical runners have both greater muscle stiffness and ability to store energy in their lower limbs. They ultimately are more efficient with their energy use during a run.
Static Stretching and Injury
STS has also been confused as a means for runners to decrease their risk of injury before a run. In no way does it do this- one large review investigated a total of five studies that only explored warm-up versus risk of injury. These studies found that warm-ups which focused on increasing body temperature rather than STS was more effective for decreasing injury. The entire purpose of a warm-up is to increase your core body temperature by 1–2 degrees Celsius such that your body’s metabolism, neural, and musculoskeletal systems are prepared for the demands of the sport. Statically holding your limb for a minute will not increase your body temperature.
Okay I get it, my warm-up should not comprise of static stretching as it makes me slower and doesn’t decrease my risk of injury, but what should I do instead? Dynamic stretching? Ballistic stretching? There appears to be no difference in the type of stretching you choose for a warm-up. The main concept is increasing body temperature and preparing for the demands of running. This means practicing the three different parts of the running cycle- absorption, mid-support, and take off. A more thorough explanation of these exercises can be seen here from the Running Clinic.
1- Your body becomes a pair of cyclic springs when it runs- being stiff and less flexible actually helps make you a more efficient runner (do not stretch before a run!)
2- The best warm-up is one that increases body temperature and mimics the three parts of the running cycle: absorption, mid-stance, and propulsion.
Note that there are caveats to this: performance may not be affected by static stretching if you are a competitive runner (approximately ~16 miles a week for at least 6 months, and have competed), have a total stretch time under 90 seconds, or stretch below the point of discomfort. However, I will say that most recreational runners do not fit into the above categories.
- Wilson, J. M., Hornbuckle, L. M., Kim, J. S., Ugrinowitsch, C., Lee, S. R., Zourdos, M. C., … & Panton, L. B. (2010). Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(9), 2274–2279.
- Witvrouw, E., Mahieu, N., Danneels, L., & McNair, P. (2004). Stretching and injury prevention. Sports medicine, 34(7), 443–449.
- Mojock, C. D., Kim, J. S., Eccles, D. W., & Panton, L. B. (2011). The effects of static stretching on running economy and endurance performance in female distance runners during treadmill running. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(8), 2170–2176.
- Fradkin, A. J., Gabbe, B. J., & Cameron, P. A. (2006). Does warming up prevent injury in sport?: The evidence from randomised controlled trials?. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 9(3), 214–220.
- The Running Clinic: ABCD Drills https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWafrYBVakU Accessed Feb 14, 2020