There is no denying that tight muscles are a runner’s worst enemy. When a muscle is short and tight, it is much weaker than when it is extended. That makes a tight muscle more prone to strain or injury that can leave even the most seasoned athlete on the bench. It is not uncommon for your muscles to get overworked and to shorten during certain times of the day or in response to a long run, which is the theory behind why stretching is so important to your overall running times and injury prevention.
There has been a great debate in the running world for decades about whether you should stretch either before, after, or both when going for a run. Many runners have accepted the notion that you shouldn’t run with “cold” muscles and that stretching is the best way to get your body ready to hit the pavement.
Unfortunately, what research is beginning to show is that not only may that be a useless practice to help you through your run, it may actual be harmful. Many runners don’t consider hitting the pavement before they have stretched their legs and arms, but many exercise physiologists insist that it actually makes no difference to a runner’s performance.
In sports where you are putting your body through different patterns of movement, it makes sense that you would want your muscles to be loose before you begin. When running, however, your body only has to work in one plane.
So, stretching may not help you in any way. What many runners don’t understand is that stretching is not always a harmless practice. When you bend over and grab your toes for a static stretch, and you feel that tug, you may think that is a good sensation. But, what it is doing is tearing the muscle fiber. The tissue fibers are tearing making the muscles elongated and more flexible.
What experts are finding is that static stretching, or finding a stretch and holding it, is much less productive to a runner than running the body through a series of warming up, range of motion, exercises. It may be more prudent to do things like hoping in place or skipping to warm up the muscles that you use to run. In general, stretching is something that should be decided upon on an individual level. If an athlete feels as if their tightness may hinder their performance, then they should do what they feel comfortable with to loosen things up.
When runners have mobility issues such as severe injuries or chronic ones like lower-back problems, loosening up the hips may help to prevent injury and keep you on track. But, if you don’t feel stiff or have a need to loosen things up, stretching for stretching’s sake is probably not a good idea or even worth the time.
If a runner already has good mobility in the muscles, needlessly stretching before a run, may actually harm them. There are times when you can overstretch a muscle and make it more likely that you will get injured. Loosening up your range of motion can make it probable that you will sustain injury because you have tampered with your natural gait. Humans were born to run, literally. And, therefore, the body already has its own mechanisms in place to loosen up the muscles and keep them flexible, sparing any injury or stiffness.
Therefore, the only runners who benefit from stretching before running are those who feel the need due to stiffness or have chronic conditions or injuries that tighten and predispose you to injury. The average runner, however, need not worry about stretching before a run, there is simply no scientific evidence behind it.
When it comes to stretching after running, the same holds true. Once you have finished your run, your muscles are likely already lengthened, and all warmed up. Unless you feel a specific area that is tight or trigger point that you think needs to be addressed, stretching doesn’t really make any sense. If you feel tightness in your hamstrings, IT bands, hip flexors, or calves, then you may benefit from stretching. But, it isn’t necessary a cure all.
Therefore, the conclusion is that the notion that every runner should stretch both before and after a run is simply not warranted. And, in some instances, stretching may do you harm. The best way to know whether stretching is something you can benefit from is by listening to your body. If you feel a tight muscle and a little stretching helps to alleviate it, then by all means, stretch away.
Just remember that stretching should be, at a minimum, mildly uncomfortable. If you are feeling pain, then it is never a good idea. If you listen to what your body is telling you instead of what runner’s debate in scientific circles, then you will know what is right for you and what will help versus hurt.