In 2010, a study from Florida State University took things even further, finding that trained distance runners who did a series of static stretches before a time trial wasted about five percent more energy and covered three percent less distance than runners who didn't stretch at all. The latter study highlights the most effective and long heard sentiments of anti-stretching advocates: Muscles, following the “slinky” theory, are less reactive when loose, rather than tight. In other words, tight muscles are explosive muscles.
Dynamic Stretching in the Modern Era
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners rewrote the distance running record books with jaw-dropping performances. As a result, coaches from around the world made their way to training camps in places such as Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Iten, Kenya, to study all aspects of their training—including their warm-up routine.
While static stretching was in no way a formal part of the East African warm-up, dynamic mobility and active isolated stretching were. These movements, based largely on the concept of engaged muscle swings to improve reactivity after tissue is already warm, have now become the accepted norm around the world and the most effective for distance runners of all ages and events. Here’s an example of an effective dynamic warm-up:
- Jog very easily for 8 to 10 min (2:00 to 3:00 per mile slower than 10K race effort)
- Jog another 3 to 4 min a bit quicker (1:30 slower than 10K race effort)
- Gently swing each leg forward and back x 10 (2 sets) with legs at a slight bend
- Repeat swinging motion with both hands on a wall so that the swinging is with legs in front of you, laterally, side-to-side (each leg x 10 for 2 sets)
- Add 45 seconds of low-intensity skipping (yes skipping, think gym class in 4th grade)
All of this should be implemented prior to any run that includes high-intensity efforts. Easy runs should simply begin slowly and move forward bit-by-bit as muscles warm.
Is All Stretching Bad?
In the simplest of terms, no, not all stretching is detrimental. While distance runners who are generally less flexible have better running economy, certain areas such as the hips and glute muscles have been shown, when tighter, to directly cause imbalances. Furthermore, decreased flexibility due to age (particularly for runners over 60) can indeed compromise performance. For these older athletes, functional strength exercises will keep joints capable of full range of motion.
Research on the performance benefits of stretching is by no means complete. But now—nearly two generations after the first running boom—it is safe to say that deep static stretching before running, particularly before harder running, provides no added benefit and should be avoided. Relaxed warm-ups with simple functional movements are far more effective and will decrease the likelihood of injury.
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