Stretching, it seems, can be a controversial topic. Some runners swear by it, others begrudgingly partake, and yet another breed skips it altogether. The research on how useful it is shows mixed results, as well.
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“Proposed benefits of stretching include faster recovery, decreased injury rates, and improved flexibility,” explains Doug Perkins, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Boulder, Colorado. “Unfortunately, current research is not very supportive of these benefits at this point.”
Anthony Carroll, a full time physical therapist in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware, agrees. “At this point, there is no clear evidence to say you should, or shouldn’t, stretch,” he explains. “But since there’s minimal data to suggest it will hurt you in any way, it’s probably best to still warm up before physical activity and utilise static stretching afterwards as needed.”
What is clear: if you do choose to stretch, it’s important to do so smartly—and safely. Here, Perkins and Carroll share their top stretching no-no’s, along with advice for how to do it right.
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Don’t: Do Static Stretches Before a Run
Why it’s bad: While Carroll notes that the literature is currently mixed on the harmful effects of pre-workout static stretching (i.e. holding a stretch in a certain position for a period of time), his general rule of thumb is to shy away from it. A 2011 study finds evidence that it may reduce your running economy—that is, your ability to stride with minimal effort.
What to do instead: Warm up your muscles with dynamic stretching, i.e. short duration stretching performed through a movement. Carroll recommends between 5 and 10 minutes of multi-directional movements. And, if you have known problem areas, “take some time to focus on dynamic warm ups targeting those areas,” he adds.
Don’t: Only Stretch Before or After Your Run
Why it’s bad: If you have chronically tight problem areas, stretching only pre and post-workout may not be enough to alleviate your issues.
What to do instead: “I typically also suggest my clients target problem areas again at night before bed if they are experiencing any cramping,” says Carroll.
Don’t: Hold a Stretch for More Than a Minute
Why it’s bad: Simply put, “static stretches that are held for greater than 60 seconds negatively affect performance,” explains Perkins.
What to do instead: Limit static stretches to 30 seconds or less, says Perkins. Carroll’s recommendation: hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds, and conduct between two to four rounds of stretching.
Don’t: Try Ballistic Stretching
Why it’s bad: Ballistic stretching uses bouncing movements to push your body beyond its natural range of motion. Performing this type of stretch puts you at risk for pushing a muscle or tendon beyond its current capacity and inducing injury. “I can’t think of a particular reason for a general distance runner to perform ballistic stretching,” says Perkins, adding, “there might be some instances where a sprinter might want to perform ballistic stretches, but dynamic stretching will likely suffice in most cases.”
What to do instead: Keep your stretching routine limited to a mix of dynamic warm ups and post-run static stretches.
Don’t: Stretch Through Pain
Why it’s bad: If a stretch is causing pain (beyond the typical discomfort associated with stretching), there may be an underlying issue that’s festering. Continuing to stretch may only worsen it.
What to do instead: Stop stretching that area and seek input from a medical professional.
Don’t: Expect Stretching to Completely Protect You From Injury
Why it’s bad: The jury is definitely still out on how effective stretching is at preventing injury. At this time,“there is little data to suggest stretching will reduce injury risk,” says Carroll. “However, there isn’t much data to say it won’t either.” This inconclusiveness means that runners should not rely on stretching as a surefire way to stay injury-free.
What to do instead: Pay attention to your body, and if you experience unusual pain during or after your runs, seek a doc—rather than your stretching mat—for support.
Don’t: Stretch an Area Just Because It “Feels Tight”
Why it’s bad: “Not all tissue needs stretching,” explains Perkins. There might be an underlying issue—say, a muscle is being overstressed due to poor running form—that is causing impaired or dysfunctional movement. In some cases, the tightness may be a nervous system phenomenon that is maintaining a muscle position for protection (think: a lower back locking or seizing up, or a stiff neck after a whiplash injury.) “The treatment in this case isn’t always stretching,” advises Perkins. “In fact, stretching might actually result in a feedback loop that maintains the tightness.”
What to do instead: If you experience recurring tightness, opt for another form of treatment, like altering your running form or strengthening that muscle, says Perkins. If there is still continued and unexplained tightness, he recommends seeking professional advice.
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This article originally appeared on Runner’s World.
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