Can Greater Flexibility Cause Injuries?

Is greater flexibility good for running? Or can it actually increase your susceptibility to injuries?

Coach Dylan explains in today’s Extra Kick!

Audio Transcript

Coach Dylan: Hi there Runners Connect fans, Coach Dylan here. Welcome back in to another episode of the Runners Connect – Run to the Top Extra Kick podcast. As always, I am here to answer your running and training questions so that you can train smarter, stay healthy and achieve your goals. Today, we have a great question from Paula.

Paula: I used to think the more flexible your muscles and ligaments, the less injury-prone you’d be. However, I read somewhere that flexible muscles and ligaments are actually fragile and more prone to injury. Is this true? Can yoga increase your risk of injury?

Coach Dylan: Thank you so much for so many of your questions Paula. The question of to stretch or to not stretch is something of a great cloud hovering over the distance running world.

While we have a lot of data that states that stretching is helpful to running performance, there’s also a lot of counter data that states it is harmful to running-related performances.

In any case of polarizing opinions, I believe the best strategy of approaching this question is to break down both sides of the argument, and to present to you with the most evidence-based conclusion as possible.

Before we dive into this discussion, we need to identify the differences in stretching mechanisms.

I believe Paula is asking primarily about static stretching, which is primarily involved in yoga classes – that is, holding a stretch for an extended period of time, with little to no movement.

An example of this would be a seated hamstring stretch.

On the flipside, we also have what is called “dynamic stretching”, or “flexibility”, which is a type of stretching that involves little to no holding actions.

But rather, moving a muscle through a greater range of motion, and allowing for both contracting and relaxation of the muscle. An example here is doing vertical and lateral leg swings.

Let’s go ahead and dive into the opposing argument. Muscles used in running movements are reliant upon elastic energy. Meaning we use energy that is absorbed and released, kind of like a spring.

If we’re using this spring analogy, we would understand that the more tense or stiff that the spring is, then the more energy we would be able to return. That means an increase in efficiency upon our musculature and tenderness structures.

Ideally, the less tense or stiff the spring is, the more likely we are to waste or lose energy towards other stabilization, our mechanisms, or further ranges of motion.

What is really neat – and I am sure that many of you have noticed this as well – is that the more you have to run, in terms of miles or kilometers per week, the less flexible you become.

Have you ever wondered why?

Our body is always adapting to the stimuli in which we’re presented. In the case of running, if we want to make the most efficient means of locomotion, we want to decrease the energy wasted.

This results in a stiffer and more tense musculature that would allow us to get more return and more bang for our buck.

This is why the trend in static stretching prior to activity has seen a strong decline in the last decade because static stretching prior to running actually decreases our efficiency, and performance output.

Static stretching prior to performance can decrease the recruitment of our muscle fiber pull. The less muscles our motor units, or what we’re able to activate well, the less we’re able to achieve that we’re looking for a maximal performance.

Common research actually provides that dynamic stretching prior to exercise is a performance enhancer. What does this all tell us?

It tells us that a dynamic routine prior to running is going to be more optimal than one of a static nature.

But you may be asking, what about post run, or on our off days? And, of course to relate to your question, does your yoga routine hinder your running performance?

Much research indicates that less is more in terms of the relation to stretching and improving range of motion.

We touched on this a little bit earlier. We know that a tighter muscle is a faster muscle. This doesn’t mean tight as in sore, but as in stiffness of the muscle.

For those who advocate static stretching, it’s important to recognize that there is a spectrum.

Being too inflexible or tight (that is, from being built up of scar tissue, or a muscular imbalance) is not great for running performance. Just as while being too flexible is not a performance enhancer.

Ideally we want to aim for a happy medium, and if you’re going to do static stretching, it’s best to apply small doses post activity, or during a cool down period.

There is evidence that’s actually been shown, and some control studies that may even show increases in hormones that help the promotion of recovery, and something that will aid shrinking in post activity.

It sounds promising, and it has a lot to do with growth factor hormones. [00:07:27 But it’s also important that this test is not able to be done in a human study.]

Again, there’s a lot of grey area when it comes to static stretching and dynamic stretching and what is going to be the most optimal for our body.

But from what we have been able to gather from our research, there is a spectrum, and we need to be able to notice what is too much flexibility, and what is too little. There is a fine line between the two.

But its mostly best – and the research that we’ve done – is to do dynamic before, and static post activity.

Now you may be asking if there’s any other options because a lot of us do a lot of static stretching prior to our runs. Again, I am not telling you not to do that.

I am just telling you that it might be better to incorporate other forms of stretching so that we can still get the loosening feeling that we get prior to our runs.

But we’re not inhibiting any sort of performance outcomes that we’re expecting.

This is where active isolated stretching comes into the picture. This is a form of stretching that targets specific muscles and allows for stretching and mobility without causing damage or something that would negate our performance outcomes.

With these stretches, we only hold them for about a total of two or three seconds, and we gradually work our way up from between contraction and relaxation.

This allows us to increase our mobility with each seceding stretch. This form of stretching is also effective for warm-ups and cool downs, and has a wide variety of ways in which you can do so.

Most running-related stretches are used with just a simple rope. If you’re interested in seeing how these stretches are performed, check it out on our website. You can learn more there, and see our videos and how the coaches show you how to do it. I would recommend it.

This is something that I have begun to incorporate in my daily routine before and after my runs. It’s something that U.S. marathoner [Meb Keflezighi 00:09:27] has also advocated for, as he spends a lot of time doing prehab activities as well as active, isolated stretching, or ARSP4, and after every single run.

Now to jump back on topic, for yoga, I think hearing some of this may sound a bit discouraging. But I do want to state that yoga provides much greater benefit to the runner’s body than negative effects.

Sure, some would say that we could use less of static stretching.

But increased yoga activities actually help bring a lot more benefit to us. Such as greater strength grains, a greater range of motion with added stability, and overall balance towards not only our body, but also our mind.

If you’re a lot like me, you’re definitely not symmetrical. There are ways in which we can stimulate our muscles to become more efficient and stronger through yoga.

Much of yoga involves a direct stimulus to the core, as well as the hips, which runners generally lack a lot of mobility and stability within.

I also have to include that with yoga, we also get a better sense of our self, and mindfulness. This is one of the greater benefits of yoga, and something that we can’t deny improves our running performance.

Self-awareness is a critical component of not only our physical and mental health, but the combination of the two, which allow us to be the most well adapted runners as possible.

My opinion, based on research and practical application, is to only warm up dynamically, or use AIS before activity, and do some light stretching afterwards. If you enjoy doing yoga for the benefits that it has brought you, please continue to do so.

We’re much more imbalanced than balanced, and yoga is a great way to open the mind and the body into ways in which we can make further improvements in strength. If we really have the choice, ideally, the more focused the yoga class is on strength and balance, the better.

Thank you so much for submitting your questions to us today, and I hope you all enjoyed today’s podcast.

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