Does stretching make you a better runner, or a worse runner? Should you stretch before your run, after your run, or both?
Stretching damages your muscles, the same as any other kind of workout, so that they can come back with appropriate adaptations to withstand that activity in the future. Granted, the microscopic tears from stretching are going to be less severe than those from a hard interval session or weight lifting, but the concept is the same.
The decision to stretch or not should be the same as whether you should go out for an easy run, or go out for a hard interval session, or whether you should take a day off completely.
Are the adaptations that you want to encourage in your muscles going to be aided by stretching, or will it slow down your progress?
Here’s an email I recently got about this in my inbox:
My son is the runner in the family; I joined to get information for him. He’s 17 & missed most of the winter & spring due to tendonitis. He’s back logging slow miles for the summer. We have taken several tips from your article I downloaded & appreciate the information. I have him doing more cross training, but would be interested in additional resources for stretching so he may remain injury free for his upcoming senior year. We’re especially interested in static vs dynamic stretching. He has been instructed not to stretch in the morning before the morning run-just stretch after. Care to comment on that?
Thanks for your help.
Tendonitis is no fun. When I was in college, I had tendonitis in my right knee at the same time that I was dealing with a stress fracture in my left leg, so it made getting around campus no fun. The best way to come back after an injury like that is to come back gradually and rebuild a solid base while finding out what caused the problem in the first place, such as overtraining, innappropriate or old broken down shoes, or bad running form. Once you know what you were doing wrong, you can fix that in your training going forward and be a strong runner.
When you stretch before you run, you’ll actually be sabotaging your workout in a small way because you’ll be damaging the muscles before your main workout, which is why David’s son has been told not to stretch before the run. When I used to spend a lot of time stretching regularly, I made it a point to always stretch after my runs and to just do dynamic warmup movements before the workouts such as a light jog or form drills like high knees, butt kicks and strides.
I definitely noticed that I ran faster doing that than I had when I used to stretch before and after my runs, but I would not read too much into that because the only time that I used to stretch before every run was when I was in middle school and for the first few years of high school, which were when I was first starting to race competitively.
There’s been a study by USATF that tracked a number of runners over a period of time who were randomly assigned to stretch or not stretch after their workouts, and they found that there was no greater chance of getting injured for one group or the other except in the case where somebody was used to stretching after their workouts and then was assigned to the group that didn’t stretch.
In fact, the only relevant markers that increased your risk of injury were a higher body mass index or the existance of a previous injury.
Personally, I’ve found that dedicated periods of stretching (such as 10 or 15 minutes after a run) doesn’t tend to do much for me anymore. As I said above, I used to do that when I was your David’s son’s age, but these days I just make a point of getting out of my chair once or twice an hour to walk around and stretch out or to do some quick stretches such as touching my toes and standing up. I won’t hold the stretch or do a lot of stretching at any given time. Instead, I will just do what feels good at the moment and then move on with whatever else is occupying my day.
What I like most is to just perform the stretch and then relax back to my normal position. You should control the movement from start to finish, rather than using momentum or gravity to try and get a deeper or more violent stretch than you really need.
Moving in a ballistic or spastic manner, especially with cold muscles, is more likely to do more damage that won’t help you run better so I’d recommend against that. Constant movement is okay, just not fast or jerky movements, which just aren’t necessary.
Rather than or in addition to stretching, the thing that I’ve found that works best is getting a foam roller and using that regularly. It’s a good way for self massage that will help improve blood flow through your legs and encourage faster recovery. I’ll usually use mine after my workouts before I shower while I wait to stop sweating, and I’ll often roll out a bit before going to bed as well.
You could also get “The Stick” which is popular for the same reasons, but I haven’t personally used one yet. (It’s on my to-do list to pick one up and try it out.) From what I’ve been told it’s better for the calves while the foam roller is better for quads and hamstrings.
Do you stretch before or after your runs? What’s your routine, and have you managed to stay injury free or been hurt now and again? Share your own experiences in the comments below.