Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 14 May 2006 05:22:00 -0400

Stretching a Point

RUNNING COMMENTARY 623

(rerun from May 2003 RW)

I came into running at a time when the only stretches that distance runners did were the backstretch and homestretch of a track. Stretching of the standing-still variety? I never did any; never thought a runner needed any.

This all changed in the 1970s, for me and for the sport. A doctor giving treatment for a stubborn injury asked me to bend over and touch my toes. I strained to graze my shins just below the knees. I've stretched ever since, with varying degrees of commitment and success.

Also in the 1970s, the decade that changed running more than any other, a new body of information declared that runners were too tight and needed to add flexibility exercises to our routine. We were told that the best corrective stretches aren't the "ballistic" type -- the quick, bouncy, repeated calisthenics we'd known from high school sports -- but the "static" stretches that hold a position at the high edge of the comfort zone.

Static stretching became the standard in running. It remains so.

Thirty years later, this practice is having its worth questioned. A study in a British medical journal stated that stretching does little if any good in preventing injury, easing soreness or improving performance. Those are the very reasons we've stretched all this time.

Runners asked me, "Should I stop stretching?" (or said, "I was right all along not to stretch"). I noted that the practice would have faded away long ago if it had been identified as worthless or harmful. Yet these exercises have been a mainstay of training for the past 30 years.

Runners won't suddenly stop stretching now, any more than we'd stop running on hearing one negative report of its effects. But the questioning of stretching does lead us to take a close look at how and when we stretch, and what it might and might not do for us.

I still stretch, regularly if minimally. Each run ends with a few minutes of bending and reaching because I perceive benefits that are subtle but real.

Stretching is neither a panacea nor a pain. The bad press it has received lately hasn't changed my practice of it or my views on the subject, which are:

1. Stretching is an overrated requirement. Runners become tight-muscled as a normal and necessary adaptation to the activity. Otherwise why would running do this to us? Tightness is a training effect, making for a springy stride. A certain degree of inflexibility is to be expected and accepted, but "tight enough" can lead to "too tight" without some corrective action.

2. Stretching isn't just for running. What's good for running might not be right for overall fitness. Flexibility is a piece in the fitness puzzle. Anyone seeking balanced fitness needs to counteract the super-tightening of running with some exercise giving the opposite result.

3. Stretching doesn't eliminate injuries. Done wrong -- too aggressively and too much -- stretches cause more problems than they prevent. Done right -- gently and in small doses -- these exercises still don't promise pain-free running. The Big Three -- too much running, too fast, too often -- cause most of our injuries.

4. Stretching isn't a warmup. It doesn't start you sweating or raise your heart rate. Done before running, it delays the true warmup. You warm up by moving -- first by running slowly or walking, then by easing into the full pace of the day.

5. Stretching is a cooldown. Warm muscles respond best to these exercises. Run first, then stretch. Saving the stretching until the afterward has added benefits beyond flexibility. It gives you a few extra minutes to cool down before you sit down. And it gives you the option of dropping the stretches instead of cutting short the run when time is tight.

6. Stretching is a sign of maturity. The youthful new runner is naturally more flexible than the older longtime one. Put another way, the more years you have in life and in running, the more that stretching might help you.

Stretching started for me in my 30s. It continues in my 60s. I don't give this practice full credit for the past 30 mostly healthy years in between, but it hasn't hurt.
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