Running Stretches Pros and Cons

There are many occasions when runners may leave the house or leisure centre and embark upon a training session without giving any thought to any stretching ritual. The idea of stretching before or afterwards is viewed as a waste of time as the muscles become exercised during the session, so why bother with running stretches.

For some runners, stretching is considered to be an as essential an exercise as the actual running, and they are keen to stress that it minimises the possibilities of avoiding injuries. Independent research from the George Washington University and the USA Track and Field Association indicates that stretching does not prevent injuries. In a study of nearly 3,000 runners, all of whom adopted a weekly mileage rate of more than 10 miles, no significant difference in injury rates was discovered between stretchers and those athletes who rarely bothered.

Dr Daniel Pereles, who was an integral part of this research and a runner himself, suggests that heavier runners were more liable to injury regardless of the fact of whether they stretched before a training session. He also stressed that runners who switched between stretching and non-stretching were more susceptible to injury, implying that adopting a consistent routine was more important.

Contrary to this view is that held by Dr Murray Weisenfeld in his book ‘The Runners’ Repair Manual’. He argues:” If you do the right exercises and do them regularly, you can avoid most injuries”. His theories are based on the belief that tight leg muscles are prone to damage and light warming up exercises before a run can significantly reduce the potential for any damage.

He advocates the following for leg muscle warm ups…

  • Put one foot in the stair with the knee up – useful for hamstrings
  • Performing the bent leg posture for thigh muscles
  • Wall pushes with one foot further forward – ideal for calves
  • Knee lifts for the lower back region.

Being a runner himself, he has always done 30 sit ups before a training session and has never had any back problems. The foot press and inner thigh stretches described in his book are also recommended for knee injury prevention.

Perhaps there will always be a conflict of opinion on the pros and cons of running stretches. There will be the recreational runners who prefer just a light form of exercise and will not be putting the leg muscles under any significant strain. Exercise stretches may have little benefit for them, as the muscles warm up during their light running.

Alternatively, take a look at international athletes prior to running a track race. Usain Bolt would not be seen arriving at a stadium, changing into his racing gear, going out onto the track and sprinting 100 metres. His first activity is stretching on the warm up track, a few light runs, walking to the track, a few light jogs on the track followed by some practice starts. During all of this activity he is constantly maintaining the flexibility of his muscles. Sprinting 100 metres is a sudden shock to the body system and so there must be a significant session before a race when the body muscles become gradually accustomed to the expectant surge to racing speed. Footballers will always try to stretch and warm up before starting a match.

Whatever opinions a runner may have about stretching, it is important to know how to stretch and for how long in order to gain maximum benefit from it.

There are several useful tips for stretches for running…

  • Always stretch slowly and hold for up to 30 seconds
  • Relax and breathe easily
  • Gradually stretch the muscles and stop if any pain is felt
  • Both sides of the body must be equally stretched
  • The most important areas are the groin, hamstring, calves, thigh and lower back.

It is also considered necessary not to stretch cold muscles, and so any smaller exercises which enable the blood to flow more readily are recommended.

Indeed many runners are of the opinion that stretching allows them to feel better for the forthcoming session, regardless of whether it helps to prevent an injury. It is a constituent part of their training program, as running only exercises certain parts of the body. Stretching can lead to a feel good factor in these cases.

In a paper written in 1999, Ian Shrier, a former president of the Canadian Society of Sports Medicine, argued that stretching may provide a good feeling but does not actually prevent local muscle injury. He has concluded that stretching may cause muscle damage and lead to deeper skeletal problems. Shrier also contends that this form of warm-up may actually disguise muscle pain and so exacerbate a problem which may already exist.

With so many conflicting viewpoints it must lead the average runner to wonder who is right and which advice has more solid foundations. Perhaps Ed Whitlock, the first over-70 to run a sub 3:30 marathon, best summarises the situation. He doesn’t believe in pre run stretches claiming that he has insufficient time for these rituals claiming that: “we all need to find our own way”. Perhaps that is a good way of saying that whatever works for one runner may not necessarily be perfect for another.

Stretches for running can take many forms and for some they are an integral part of the sport and it can work for many runners. However, some athletes are more prone to injuries than others and stretching is viewed as a necessity to reduce any possibilities of muscle tears. For others, just by starting a run slowly enables the body muscles to warm up gradually.

Other runners have argued the case for stretching and that warming down afterwards is also vital. This leads to the muscles cooling down gradually rather than coming to sudden end in activity.

It may be a case that it is up to the individual to decide what is best for them. Any runner who is sufficiently fortunate to be relatively injury free may not see the need for exercise stretches prior to a run, especially if they have not adopted running stretches previously. Stretching will remain a contentious point and will continue to suit some runners but not others.