I remember when I was growing up – in gym class, in the Navy, etc. – how often I was told to stretch. I also remember always being told to stretch before any physical activity or you risk pulling or tearing muscles or other types of injuries.
So that’s what I’ve always done.
But since I have started running I have done a lot of research on this subject. At my age (47), I want to make sure I do the right things. Injury’s are more likely for people my age than those twenty-somethings out there 🙂
Now, what I learned surprised me, considering everything I was told in the past. It is actually better to stretch AFTER a run than before. Or, more accurately, after some sort of warm up, such as walking or a warm up jog of 5 to 10 minutes. In other words, DON’T stretch when your muscles are cold.
And still more surprising, some research suggests that stretching has very little effect on injury prevention in general.
The bottom line is that there is a lot of opinions, research and findings – most of it confusing to those (like me) who are new to running or physical fitness in general. My advice is to research and learn what you can and apply what makes sense to you.
Let’s take a look at some articles I have come across:
By Elizabeth Quinn: When to Stretch – Why Experts Recommend Athletes Stretch After Exercise (at the end of this article are some pretty good links with further reading)
By Susan Paul (RunnersWorld.com): Should I Stretch Before or After Running?
The following is credited to Jesslyn Cummings from an article she wrote for About.com back in 2006 (click here):
As usual, when you stretch will depend on what works for you personally. However, there are a few points that hold true for (nearly) everyone who stretches…
Stretching Do’s and Do Nots
- warm up thoroughly first
- ease into a stretching routine
- only static stretches (slow, rhythmic movement)
- pay attention to your breathing (take deep belly breaths)
- make stretching a habit
- listen to your body
- hold your breath
- force a stretch
- hold painful stretches
- stretch injured muscles
- hurry through your routine
- compete ()
Don’t forget the Warm Up and Cool Down!
The warm up and cool down should not be optional in your running routine. As has been mentioned, cold muscles are at the highest risk for injury. By increasing the temperature of your muscles, they will be more flexible and have an increased speed of motion. Warming up can loosen your muscles and soft tissue as much as 20 percent. The cool down allows blood to continue flowing through your muscles (and into your brain), working its way more slowly from a high level of exertion to its normal resting condition. These two simple additions to your work out can help lessen (maybe even prevent) soreness and irratability after a run.
This NY Times article from 2008 talks about the best ways to warm up (not stretch) before running. By Gretchen Reynolds: Stretching: The Truth
So with all of the apparently conflicting information out there, how do you know what you should be doing (if anything)? Well, I’m no doctor. Which is why I always recommend you talk to a doctor and develop a program that is right for you. If your doctor is not up on sports medicine then ask for a referral to one who is.
For me, running is about helping me stay fit. It helps me to relax. A nice quiet early morning run clears my mind, strengthens my body and refreshes my soul. It’s not about competition for me. I don’t race, nor do I actively try to improve my times, etc. If that’s what you want to do, then make sure you find the best answers for you.
Running should be enjoyable. The more you know about warming up and stretching, the more you’ll reduce the chance of injury.