Stretching and Running Performance
By Rick Morris
I consider myself a typical distance runner. I love nearly everything about running. I enjoy my long easy runs just as much as my fast paced track efforts. I even like my strength training and high intensity plyometric sessions. I love to push the limits of what my mind and body can do. But, if you’re like me and most other distance runners, there is one thing you don’t look forward to; your pre run warm up and post run cool down stretching. Do stretching and running performance go hand in hand?
Do you really need to do that stretching? Does stretching have any affect on your running performance? Distance runners have included static stretching exercises in their warm up for years, primarily to help avoid injuries, but recent research seems to show that chronic static stretching actually does little to prevent running injuries. You should always do some dynamic stretching to improve range of motion and warm up your muscles before your run. But it seems you no longer need to do any extensive pre run static stretching to prevent injury.
How about stretching and running performance level? Does a pre run stretching routine make you stronger, faster or more economical? Does chronic static stretching improve your endurance? There’s some conflicting information out there, but most of the recent scientific studies say no. Not only does static stretching not improve your running performance, it may even have an adverse affect on your running.
Effect of Stretching on Running Speed and Power
Your muscles are similar to rubber bands. When you stretch a rubber band it stores energy. When you release the rubber band it returns that stored energy and flies across the room. Your muscles work in a similar fashion. During the support phase of your running stride, your muscles will lengthen and store energy, just like a stretched rubber band. Your leg muscles will then contract and release that stored energy, giving you the speed and power needed to run. A stiffer rubber band will store and release more energy than a loose rubber band. In the same sense, if have more stiffness in your muscles, they will store and release more energy, increasing your speed, giving you more power and improving your running economy.
Plyometric training has long been known as one of the best ways to improve your running economy and performance. A study done at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia found that the mechanism behind those improvements in running performance is an increase in musculotendinous stiffness (MTS) brought about by the plyometric training.
There is no question that enhanced MTS will improve your running performance. The question is does stretching have an adverse affect on MTS and running performance. At first glance, common sense seems to say yes. If a muscle is over stretched through static flexibility exercises it stands to reason that the muscle will become looser and have decreased MTS. Does science also agree? Again, there is some conflicting information out there but most recent studies seem to agree that chronic static stretching will decrease MTS and have a negative influence on your running performance.
Two recent studies looked at the effect of pre run static stretching on track and field athletes. One study from 2008 conducted at the University of Louisiana and another during 2007 at the University of Luton in the United Kingdom. Researchers in both studies investigated the effects of static stretching performed after a series of dynamic stretching drills. Dynamic stretching has been proven to be warm up routine that is effective in preparing your body for running and also enhancing your running performance. The researchers in the Louisiana study concluded that “The results of this study suggest that performing a static stretching protocol following dynamic drills will inhibit sprint performance in collegiate athletes.” The United Kingdom researchers found similar results, concluding “…passive static stretching in a warm up decreases sprint performance, despite being combined with dynamic stretches, when compared to a solely dynamic stretch approach.”
Stretching and Muscular Endurance
So, it looks like pre run static stretching does have an adverse affect on speed and power. Speed and power are important for distance running performance and running economy, but how about muscular endurance? That is obviously another critical factor in distance running. Does pre run static stretching inhibit muscular endurance? Again, the studies say yes. Another study done at the University of Louisiana looked at the effects of pre exercise stretching on muscular endurance. These researchers conducted experiments using a knee flexion muscle strength endurance exercise following either a stretching or no stretching protocol.
The muscular endurance exercises were performed at 40%, 50% and 60% of body weight. The researchers found that “when exercise was performed at 60% of body weight, stretching significantly reduced muscle strength endurance by 24%, and at 40% of body weight it was reduced by 9%. The group that exercised at 50% of body weight used a different protocol in which they performed tests on 4 different days, which increased the reliability of the results. This group saw their muscular endurance reduced by 28% following stretching. The authors of this study said “…it is recommended that heavy static stretching exercises of a muscle group be avoided prior to any performances requiring maximal muscle strength endurance.”
To Stretch or Not To Stretch
OK, it seems clear that chronic pre run static stretching will have an adverse effect on your running performance and running economy. So, what should you do? Should you do any stretching at all? Yes- of course you must do some stretching. The question is what type of stretching you should do and when you should do it. Dynamic stretching exercises have been proven to be an effective warm up that will not reduce your MTS. Can you do anything else to prepare you body to run? How about plyometrics? Many runners perform plyometric exercises before a race or training run. Is that an effective technique? I’ve been using that technique for years and have had very good results with it. Does the scientific community agree with me? Yep – they do. There was a study done at the University of Ballarat in Australia that looked at the interaction between running, stretching and practice jumps (plyometrics). The Australian researchers found that “The results indicated that sub maximum running and practice jumps had a positive effect whereas static stretching had a negative influence on explosive force and jumping performance. It was suggested that an alternative for static stretching should be considered in warm ups prior to power activities.”
Is static stretching going the way of the dinosaur? Not at all – static stretching is still an important part of your training routine. You should just change the order of your exercise. For a pre run warm up do dynamic stretching drills and plyometrics that will move your muscles through running specific range of motions and prepare your muscles for the high intensity running that will follow without adversely affecting your MTS and running economy. Do your static stretching as a cool down activity after your run or race.
Acute muscle stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance, Nelson AG, Kokkonen J., Arnall DA, J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May;19(2):338-43
Static stretching impairs sprint performance in collegiate track and field athletes, Winchester JB, Nelson AG, Landin D, Young MA, Schexnayder IC, J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jan;22(1):13-9
The acute effects of combined static and dynamic stretch protocols on fifty meter sprint performance in track and field athletes, Fletcher IM, Anness R, J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Aug;21(3):784-7
Effects of running static stretching and practice jumps on explosive force production and jumping performance, Young WB, Behm DG, J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2003 Mar;43(1):21-7