The conversation around stretching has evolved over time. Growing up, my father ran religiously – six days a week, and his routine was incomplete without a ten-minute pre-run stretching session. Hamstrings, quads, glutes, calves. He did it because everyone did it, without question, because it must be the best thing to do.
By the late 1990s, however, thinking had begun to shift. A review article published in 1999 captured the evolving sentiment when it concluded “There is moderate to strong evidence that routine application of static stretching does not reduce overall injury rates”.
That same review did however hint at “preliminary evidence that static stretching may reduce musculotendinous injuries”. It did this on the basis of a paltry seven studies that were deemed sufficiently high quality to allow a conclusion to be reached, which kind of typifies the field at the time – few studies, no strong evidence, too much room for doubt.
Allied to this, there was also a growing awareness that not only might regular stretching be ineffective, it could also be harmful! People can get injured if they stretch too much, too often, or with bad technique or habits. Also, being stiff is not actually a bad thing for runners, because when we run, our muscles and tendons work like springs that capture energy every time we land and then release it when we push off the ground. Stretching, one argument suggested, was like loosening or stretching out that ‘spring’, which would make us less efficient, less bouncy runners. Think ‘splatty squash ball’, rather than the bouncy golf ball you want to be when you run.
To further complicate life, not all stretching is equal. There is static stretching, the “touch your toes” kind of thing where you stretch until it gets tight, then hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then go a little further, and so on, until you improve your range of motion. There is also dynamic stretching, where you stretch the muscle during an active movement, like when you swing a leg back and forth. And there is PNF stretching, short for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, a mouthful for an advanced type of stretch where you combine contraction and stretching of the muscles, often with the assistance of a partner or therapist.
Without even going into major detail, you can tell that this stretching business is a little more complex than it initially seems to be. So your simple question “Should I stretch before I run?” turns out to be more difficult to answer than you (and I) would like. The passage of time hasn’t really shed light on this either. Eighteen years after that initial review paper suggested “some promise”, another was done and it concluded, somewhat dishearteningly, that there are insufficient studies, too variable in their methods, to allow for comparisons, and that “more studies are necessary”.
So let’s cut through this confusion with some practical advice. Given the uncertainty, please realize that this is “best available”, and is a mix of what the evidence suggests and what is practically experienced by those working with athletes.
Stretch only if you know you need it
First, don’t stretch unless you know there is a compelling reason to do so. That compelling reason will ideally come from a physiotherapist who can properly assess you and identify where you might have flexibility imbalances or tightness that they feel is contributing to an injury or a niggle. If you’re injured, then you’re either resting or seeing a physio for guidance to get you back on the road. If you’re resting, now is probably not the best time to start stretching, because you might aggravate an injury, or you might create new problems by stretching “around” the problem, which may make you more susceptible when you start running. My advice would be to see a physiotherapist, or failing this, rest until pain goes away and then focus rather on strength and activating the muscle, not stretching it.
Don’t stretch if there’s no need
Staying on the topic, don’t stretch if you don’t have any niggles and you’re not a regular stretcher. In other words, if you’re running just fine, no injuries and problems, and you’re not stretching, don’t start just because someone suggests it would be good for you. There is very little to gain and potentially something to lose by changing a working system. Similarly, if you have no niggles and you do regularly stretch, then keep doing that – it would be unnecessary to change it just because you read this article.
Let’s mobilize, not stretch
Next, let’s shift our minds away from stretching and towards “mobilizing”. Two weeks ago, I shared with you a batch of exercises that would help you active your core and glutes and run in a more connected way. You may recall that the first pair of these exercises were mobilization exercises, to help release the structures in your hips that can get in the way of activating the core. That’s the principle we should focus on – not necessarily stretching a muscle and tendon to make it longer, but rather relaxing the tightness that might “block” important muscles from being used.
It is kind of semantic, but an important concept, because it means you don’t need to worry about the static stretching and your range of motion, but rather whether you can create enough movement to run in a connected way. So those exercises are worth revisiting, along with similar mobilization drills, which you can do just before you run. Just don’t push so hard in the stretch phase that you cause injury.
Be gentle and smart about stretching
Third and finally, try to stretch warm muscles. If you’re advised that your range of motion is too small and that you do need stretching (as described above), then before you do any kind of stretching, get warm. And then obey the principle of not stretching to the point of pain, just tension. Stretching should be easy and comfortable, not a test of your pain tolerance and sheer bloody-mindedness!
The best way to achieve this might be to set aside five minutes of relaxation time after your runs. The idea is to unwind, with a series of gentle stretches and movements that just ‘pull’ on the areas you can feel are tight during the run. There’s not necessarily structure or a plan to it, and the goal is not to stretch as much as it is to relax after the run. Think of it is post-run meditation and relaxation, and you’ll find the necessary level of stretch.