Is Stretching Before Running Bad? Expand Your Concept of Flexibility to Improve as a Runner

This guest post was written by Greg Strosaker

One of the more controversial topics in running (other than the debate over footwear choices) is the importance of flexibility.

Coaches, experts, and runners disagree over the role flexibility plays in preventing injury or boosting performance, how to improve it, and even its very definition.

This post reviews some of the debate over stretching and attempts to provide some definition, and then finishes with an introduction to a wide spectrum of approaches to building flexibility in a manner that is as specific as possible to running.

Defining the concept of flexibility for runners

First, it is important to note that flexibility is not a straightforward concept.  There are at least three definitions of flexibility that may matter for runners.

  1. The first concept is of passive flexibility, which describes the ability of a muscle, ligament, or tendon ability to assume and hold an extended position while under an external force (such as your body weight).  Such flexibility is often thought of (and assessed) as a “reach and hold” motion, such as bending at the waist to touch your toes while keeping your knees straight.
  2. A second concept is your active flexibility.  This is the range of motion you can achieve using your own strength with no external forces.  An example would be lying on your back and extending your leg into the air to stretch your hamstring, without using your hands or a stretching strap to aid the motion.
  3. The third concept is dynamic flexibility, which incorporates motion into the definition.  For example, the range over which you can swing your leg forward defines your dynamic flexibility in your hip muscles. For runners, it is clear that dynamic flexibility is more significant of a performance factor through its ability to impact your running economy and form.

Why should runners care about increasing flexibility?

There are two reasons runners are generally concerned about flexibility.  The first is its potential impact on running performance via improving your running economy.  The theory would be that improved flexibility allows you to more easily extend your muscles through their range of motion and reduce the work required to run.

In fact, it is unclear that increasing passive and active flexibility plays any positive role in running performance. At least two significant studies1,2 have found that, at least for elite runners, performance in flexibility evaluations was inversely correlated with running economy – i.e., the “more flexible” runners had worse economy (and thus had to work harder to generate a certain speed, when controlled for other variables such as their VO2max). Studies of the relationship between dynamic flexibility (which is admittedly difficult to quantify) and running performance are hard to find, unfortunately.

The second reason runners care about flexibility is that it may play a role in reducing the risk of injury. However, the research on this idea is inconclusive3, as many early studies promoting the benefits of stretching suffered from the typical flaws inherent in studies.  While legions of physical therapists preach the importance of stretching to warm-up or cool-down from exercising to prevent injuries,

In spite of the seemingly negative effect of flexibility on running economy and unclear effect on injury risk, most runners still make flexibility routines a part of their regular training.  Such work often does seem to provide recovery benefit, perhaps by improving blood flow to sore or tight areas or by helping to work out scar tissue adhesions.  Since injuries often begin as “tightness” or accumulation of scar tissue in a specific muscle or tendon, it is possible that the process of exercising this muscle through flexibility work provides benefit.  The challenge then becomes defining the manner in which one works on such flexibility.

How to improve your flexibility

One method of improving your active (and probably dynamic) flexibility is strength training4.  Since, for active and dynamic flexibility, your muscles serve as the force that help you achieve the range of motion, improving the strength of the muscles naturally increases your flexibility (or, more correctly, the flexibility of the opposing muscle to the one you are strengthening).

Beyond strength training, there are five fundamental techniques you can use to improve your flexibility, which differ along the “active / passive” spectrum as well as in their specificity to running.  These five techniques, listed in order from least- to most-specific, are:

  • Static Stretching
  • Yoga
  • Active isolated stretching (AIS)
  • Mobility drills
  • Running drills

Static Stretching

When most people think of improving flexibility, they immediately think of static stretching approaches.  Such exercises involve basic “reach and hold” techniques, where one seeks to elongate a muscle, tendon, or ligament to its limit and hold it there for a period typically ranging from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

Such exercises can be performed at any time, though many experts recommend doing them at the end of other exercises so that the muscles are “warm” and thus more limber and able to take advantage of improved blood flow to promote the healing that occurs after stretching (note – the concept is that flexibility is improved by creating microtears in the muscles, which then, by healing, become slightly elongated and thus “more flexible”).

The advantages of static stretching are:

  • The routines/exercises are generally pretty easy to learn, though it can help to have someone evaluate your technique to ensure you aren’t “cheating” the stretch (by bending your knee during a straight leg stretch, for example).
  • It can be performed nearly any time and requires very little mental focus – you can multi-task while stretching

The disadvantages of static stretching are notable as well:

  • The muscle being stretched tenses defensively, thus potentially negating the effectiveness of the stretch.
  • Any gains are purely in passive flexibility, which may have limited application for running.

Yoga

Many runners swear by yoga as a means of “staying healthy”.  For those not as familiar with yoga, there is a wide variety of types available, but nearly all incorporate a range of (mostly static) poses that are designed to simultaneously enhance both strength and flexibility.  These poses are typically held for around 30 seconds, and can, at advanced levels, be very challenging, so one must be careful not to overreach their capabilities. A good yoga series for runners incorporates a lot of exercises designed to improve hip, glute and core strength and flexibility.

Yoga provides some unique advantages for runners:

  • Routines are scalable from as short as two minutes to as long as two hours.  In fact, you can incorporate basic poses such as lunges, Warrior III (similar to a single-leg deadlift) and downward dog outside of a formal yoga routine as part of your normal warm-up or cool-down.
  • The practice of yoga can help improve your mental discipline and focus, which can further benefit your running (and, through the relaxation techniques encouraged by the practice, your general health).
  • Yoga can increase strength and flexibility simultaneously

Many of the drawbacks of yoga are:

  • The gains in flexibility are mostly passive or active, not dynamic, and therefore may be of limited benefit for running.
  • Yoga requires practice and focus in order to reap the full benefit and avoid injury, so it is not suitable to multi-tasking – it requires a dedicated time period.

A good series of short yoga routines for runners can be found for free on the Yoga Today page on YouTube; look specifically for some of their hip-opening lunge routines.

Active Isolated Stretching (AIS)

Originally developed by Aaron Mattes but more recently commercialized by Jim and Phil Wharton, active isolated stretching involves sets of short muscle-activated stretches (2 seconds per repetition) targeting specific muscles, tendons, or ligaments in various “zones”.

The basic principal involves contracting the muscle opposite the one you are trying to stretch (contract the quad to stretch the hamstring, for example), which instinctively causes the targeted muscle to relax, and using your hand or a strap to assist only at the maximum range of the stretch.  The purpose in holding for only two seconds is to not allow the muscle to contract defensively and negate the benefit of the stretch.

The benefits of active isolated stretching are:

  • The stretches are very targeted, down to the finest muscle and motion (big toe abduction, for example).
  • With around 59 different stretches available, it is possible to customize a routine that meets your specific needs.
  • You can perform it anywhere and it is easily “scalable” to fit the time you have available.
  • Since it involves muscle activity, AIS can serve as an effective warm-up for running and, as opposed to static stretching, your muscles can be “cold” when beginning the routine.
  • It promotes neuromuscular development and improved find motor control, thus offering significant gains in running form through increased body awareness.

The drawbacks of AIS are:

  • The exercises require some learning, especially given the wide range available.
  • Proper form requires focus and this thus limits your ability to multi-task while stretching.
  • A full AIS sequence of all 59 exercises can take up to two hours, though the routines focused on the legs require only 30-40 minutes.
  • Some runners have gotten injured when adopting the routines too aggressively; like any stretching regimen, it is easy to overdo things.

This file provided by Arbor Wellness provides a good set of basic AIS exercises for runners.

Dynamic Stretching/Mobility Exercises

Dynamic stretching routines, such as the Myrtl and Cannonball routines from Jay Johnson or the Nike cool-down routine from RunnersConnect, incorporate exercises that improve your mobility through working your muscles through a range of motion in a manner that mimics the forces experienced during running.

Exercises such as donkey kicks and whips, leg swings, lunges, and scorpions specifically address the active flexibility and strength of key muscles such as those in your glutes and hips.

The advantages of dynamic stretching are:

  • They are generally short (5-10 minute) routines that can be performed on their own (and even in street clothes) or as a warm-up or cool-down for running.
  • They develop core strength, specifically in the glutes and hips, in parallel with mobility and can thus serve as “bonus” strength training.
  • The routines are relatively easy to learn.

The drawbacks of dynamic stretching include:

  • They require some space and access to a clean and soft floor, which can limit your ability to perform them in a cramped environment such as an office or hotel room.

Drills

While often not thought of as a flexibility-improving exercise, running drills are in reality some of the most specific mobility work that runners can perform.

Such traditional exercises as skipping, butt kicks, or high knees, as well as the more advanced drills focused in improving your form as included in the Hermes routine, such as A- and B-skips and karaoke, drive specific gains in strength and form in a dynamic manner.

This is the purest form of “functional flexibility” and drives neuromuscular / coordination gains in a manner that can’t be matched by other flexibility approaches.

The advantages of drills are:

  • It is the most running-specific of all types of flexibility work, so the gains are intuitively obvious.
  • It can be incorporated directly into your running workouts, often at the tail end of your running session or as a warm-up routine.
  • Even the process of learning to execute the drills correctly leads to neuromuscular gains and increased body awareness.

The drawbacks of drills are:

  • They require a bit of practice to master, and can be frustrating at first.
  • It can be difficult to determine if you are performing the drills properly, so a coach or other assistant may be helpful as you learn the drills (and for occasional feedback even once you have “mastered” them).
  • They are difficult to perform spontaneously as they do require time, space, and a low level of fatigue

Final thoughts on flexibility for runners

In closing, because the correlation between flexibility, injury risk, and running performance is difficult to determine, especially when one evaluates all the potential definitions of flexibility and corresponding manners to improve it, a prudent runner incorporates all of the above techniques into their training.

Furthermore, the mix of such techniques may shift over time and through the season, as various needs become more obvious.  For example, more static stretching or yoga may feel more necessary when one is sore or fatigued, whereas drills may seem more relevant during your base building program.  Becoming familiar with all of these techniques will boost your long term performance (and therefore satisfaction) as a runner.

Greg StrosakerGreg Strosaker is the coach, author, and blogger behind Predawn Runner, a site designed to help runners find time and techniques to pursue their aggressive goals in the midst of a busy lifestyle.  As a 2:52 marathoner in a dual-career family with three young children (one of whom is autistic), Greg leads by example and hopes to inspire other runners to find ways to chase their passions. You can follow Greg on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

References

1. Craib MW, Mitchell VA, Fields KB, Cooper TR, Hopewell R, Morgan DW, The association between flexibility and running economy in sub-elite male distance runners. Medicine and Sciences in Sports and Exercise 1996 Jun;28(6):737-43.

2. Jones AM, Running economy is negatively related to sit-and-reach test performance in international-standard distance runners. International Journal of Sports Medicine 2002 Jan;23(1):40-3.

3. Ingraham SJ, The role of flexibility in injury prevention and athletic performance: have we stretched the truth? Minnesota Medicine 2003 May;86(5):58-61.

4. Iashvili, Soviet Sports Review 1983 18(1).

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