As a runner I have always had a stretching routine, however only after I am done with my runs, but not always. I have never stretched before my runs. I always start my runs with a brisk walk or nice slow jog for 5-10 minutes before I get into the meat of my run. This is a practice I have adhered to since I took up running almost 4 years ago and something that I do not plan on changing anytime soon.
The subject of stretching brings up varied responses from athlete to athlete, coach to coach, even exercise physiologist to exercise physiologist--a subject that does not seem to have a right or wrong answer. As diverse as we are as individuals, same is true for how we approach the subject of stretching. In other words, "we are all an experiment of one" consequently, what works best for me may or may not work well for you.
In talking with new runners, they are so eager to follow the lead of those who came before them. But my role as a coach is to guide them to what works best for them-- not their neighbor who has been running for over 30 years who never stretches or the memories of their high school coach who insisted that they stretch before every run. It's about learning how their body responds to their training.
Studies have shown that stretching, especially static stretching-the most commonly practice form of stretching where one holds a stretch for a period of time, will not prevent injury or prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, nor can stretching take away an injury. A lesson taught in the RRCA running coach's certification class is "you cannot stretch away an injury." Since most running injuries are due to overuse, in other words doing too much, too soon, too fast, too far, etc or due to a biomechanical issue, there is little benefit to stretching from this perspective.
This does not mean stretching is not a valid part of a runner's routine because tight and stiff muscles can contribute to an increase rate of injury. But also know that improper stretching, such as over stretching an already stretched out muscle, may lead to bigger issues than if you never stretched.
So what should you do? Never underestimate the power of a good warm-up, which is even more essential for runners since this time allows for a gradual increase in heart rate and a greater blood flow to the muscles, while warming up the connective tissues, that help us run. Ironically, many runners will skip this all important aspect to their race. I have seen many a runner stretching their hamstrings and quads just before the gun goes off, but fail to do one of the most pertinent parts of racing and that is to warm up. This is especially important if the race is a short distance, such as a 5K or 10K.
So to make a long story short there is no clear cut right or wrong therefore, the debate will continue as to whether one should or should not stretch. But know that if you find great benefit from stretching then by all means continue and if you are one, like me, who doesn't always end a workout with a good stretching routine, let go of the guilt.
Do you stretch prior to your workouts? Or do you wait until after your workouts to stretch?
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