Commonly believed to loosen muscles before running and alleviate tightness afterwards, stretching has long been considered an important part of the runner’s routine. But are these beliefs simply held on to because it’s what we’ve seen so many other runners do? Recently an article posted on ABC News website highlighted the growing number of runners who choose not to stretch. Multiple studies of merit are cited which conclude that stretching does not prevent a runner’s chances of acquiring injuries. In fact, the prevailing theory is that stretching might actually negatively affects the neuromuscular junction the crossroads at which the nervous system communicates with the muscle causing muscles to react sluggishly, though it’s important to note that this is only a theory at this point and the effect of stretching on the neuromuscular junction has not been proven.
So with all this, why might a runner still want to stretch, especially after a run? Stretching has benefits on flexibility and range of motion, and although it’s true that the running motion does not require a large range of motion from the joints of the legs, some flexibility is required. Each person, and runner, is made inherently different from the next. There are multiple properties in our bodies that are in opposition to one another. Speed and endurance are two of these elements that are opposite, meaning the marathoner will not beat the sprinter in a short race, but the sprinter does not have a chance against the marathoner in a long race. Strength and flexibility may oppose each other as well: the yoga teacher may have difficulty competing against the Olympian weight-lifter, and the Olympian weight-lifter will most likely have a hard time in the yoga class.
Most likely, a proper balance between these polarized elements is needed in order to prevent injury in any sport. For the runner, naturally the ability to endure a long run is desired, but if combined with as much speed as possible without sacrificing endurance well, that makes for a successful runner. And to have as much strength as possible without losing range of motion will allow the runner to have the necessary leg kick to facilitate a healthy running form. Mild stretching activities, performed after a run, will help to maintain the muscles pliability and motion. Dynamic stretching activities, such as leg swings, high-knees, kicks, will help to improve the muscles flexibility without negatively affecting the neuromuscular properties of the muscle.
In the end, I think it’s a personal choice. Read the research and listen to your running coach but trust your own experience. As an avid runner who has completed 17 marathons, and as a physical therapist, I believe in everything in moderation: a little bit of stretching after running, holding for short durations, helps to alleviate post-workout tightness and allows me to function daily without restriction. I abandoned this routine a few years back, and at that point I’d finished 8 marathons. I quickly spiraled down the drain of injuries. Only once I re-incorporated some easy stretching into my routine did I begin to feel normal again.
Scott Siverling, physical therapist and board-certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist, is the Clinical Supervisor at the Hospital for Special Surgery Integrative Care Center.