The stretching debate


Recent research has raised questions about the value of stretching. For instance, athletes who stretched before a 100m sprint or maximal jump test actually performed worse than if they performed warm up drills or didn’t stretch at all prior to the testing. The majority of distance runners aren’t testing their vertical leap or 100m times. Personally, I would be downright embarrassed to see my results. These studies do highlight the benefit of performing warm up drills prior to running.


The most valuable warm-up drills for runners include: easy running, cycling, cross-overs (sideways jogging with a cross over pattern of the feet), heel walking, skipping and shallow lunges.

While stretching prior to competition may not have a beneficial effect, regular stretching does appear to improve strength, jump height and running speed. Stretching for 15 to 30 seconds increases flexibility as much as stretches held for a longer time. Improved flexibility initially lasts approximately 90 minutes. However, if stretching is performed 3 to 5 days per week the gains may last for several weeks.


Stretching has also been advocated to reduce injuries. While many individuals have made this observation, so far the research has not been able to verify it. One factor that does clearly reduce your risk of injury is to maintain a higher level of cardiovascular fitness throughout training, during the off-season, and when you’re recovering from an injury. In one study assessing basic trainees, those who were least fit were fourteen times more likely to sustain an injury than there more fit counterparts.


Interestingly, three studies have found that the most efficient runners (fastest) were the least flexible. The thought being that less flexible runners had a greater amount of elastic recoil and hence require less energy to propel themselves forward.


Many of us have experienced muscle soreness after a harder run or race. Several strategies have been studied to determine the most effective method to reduce the soreness. Stretching actually has less research to support its value than any other method including: massage, acupuncture, Tylenol, anti-inflammatories, diathermy (a physical therapy heating treatment that is also used in horse racing) and electrical muscular stimulation.


Before making changes to your stretching program (or lack thereof) it is important to realize that the research on stretching is limited. There are many factors that affect running performance and injury occurrence that are difficult to assess in a study. If you have had success with your current stretching program, stick with it!


Key Points

  • Maintain cardiovascular fitness to reduce your risk of future injury.
  • Perform warm up activities prior to running.
  • Slow stretches held for 15 to 30 seconds may be more effective at improving flexibility.
  • Regular stretching may improve: strength, jump height and running speed.
  • Some tightness (especially the hip flexors) may actually improve your running economy.


Bryan Whitesides MPT, OCS

Physical Therapist

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