Stretch Yourself – Women’s Running Blog Post
Back in the eighties, ballistic stretches were all the rage, bopping your head and fingertips down towards your toes to the sound of ‘Rhythm Is a Dancer’ – as were Jane Fonda videos, dotted leggings and headbands. I sincerely hope you have given up on all of the above and only listen to ‘Heaven is a place on Earth’ while running without singing along… but how about stretching?
I’m sure I’m not the only one getting different messages in my inbox. One running magazine will advocate stretching when another trainer’s newsletter claims it doesn’t bear any benefit. And so, over the years, I’ve gone from stretching before and after exercise to only stretching after exercise… to forgetting to stretch all along (not good, my muscles felt very stiff) to regular yoga sessions, plus some stretches after exercise now.
Mind you, I’m by no means representative of the rest of the running population; a) I’m hyper-mobile and can do crazy stuff with my joints, and b) I’m a Pilates instructor and get to mobilise and stretch my limbs on a daily basis at work. So you’d have to think my general level of flexibility was quite good. And you’d be spot on – most of the time.
But how about you? Would stretching before exercise be beneficial for you? Well, in one of the latest news I’ve received, Bennett Cohen, from the International Association of Women Runners (www.iawr-connect.com), quoting from a study from 1999, that’s right, before the Sydney Olympics even, says, “stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury”.
In fact, as a slightly more recent study from the University of Nevada shows (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/sports/playmagazine/112pewarm.html?_r=1) that static stretching before exercise can decrease muscle strength. Rubber Girl at stretch maximum doesn’t run very fast. In more scientific talk, the stretched muscle becomes less responsive due to a neuromuscular inhibitory response to stretching. And, more alarmingly perhaps, maximum range static stretching pre-running may also increase your risk of injury, according to a few studies. There you have it, showing off where you can put your legs before a run is bad for you, girls!
But don’t think that means you should bound out the door belting out, ‘I am rhythm now’, without any further ado; hold your horses! Warming up the muscles is still very important to improve blood flow to them and the surrounding tissue. And that’s not just a slow start to your run or a few technique drills. Ideally, it includes dynamic stretching.
If you’ve never come across the term before, that means prepping your body for your run by going through a few exercises that take you through your full range of motion. Moves that ‘limber you up’, so to speak. Think squats, lunges, butt kicks, swinging your leg from side to side like a pendulum, that kind of thing. Perhaps a few technique drills running 25-50m and back. It’s an excellent way to focus on your running style at the same time. And you’ll look quite the pro. Let me know if you’d like any video links!
It looks as if evidence as to whether stretching prevents injury, helps with recovery or lessens stiffness is still a little inconclusive, but regular stretching seems to reduce cramping during exercise and runners’ perception of stiffness may be altered (Noakes, Lore of Running). So you won’t feel quite as stiff during or after your run, hence why I felt worse when I stopped stretching altogether.
And there’s pretty conclusive evidence (which we like) that having a good stretch post-workout, or a massage on a roller, may provide the greatest benefit to runners. I quote again from the IAWR newsletter, this time Dr Owen Anderson, “Stretching most likely plays its best roles in the post-workout, post-race stages. Such stretching seems to prepare muscles for the periods of quiescence which follow exertions. Research has also noted that post-training stretching can actually boost the rate of intake of carbohydrate into muscle cells, an effect which would enhance glycogen storage and provide the energy needed for repairing muscle fibres after strenuous efforts. It is extremely unlikely that such stretching would harm running economy during subsequent training sessions.” Quiescence. I like it. Very eloquently put – makes me want to stretch right now.
So to summarise: do a dynamic warm-up instead of a static stretch before your workout, stretch out after your run and don’t feel bad if you miss it. If your body seems to feel better for it, great! If not, no harm done. Some runners go for years without stretching – and I wouldn’t advocate it but whatever works for your body is great.
What you should really listen to is any excessive tightness or muscular imbalance in your body, though. Those can create more trouble in no time. Don’t ignore any of your body’s warning signals. If something starts playing up, seek the help of a good therapist, be that remedial massage, acupuncture or myofascial release.
Heck, I’m uber-flexible and stretch my limbs out every day but I still need some bodywork done on a regular basis – depending on the intensity of my training programme. Remember: No Jane Fonda. And you don’t have to be Rubber Girl to run well but you want to keep your body nice and supple.