The benefits of stretching far outweigh skipping your stretch sesh for ice cream. Try these four types of stretches. Then get ice cream.
Let’s be honest: most runners don’t love stretching. And why would they? It’s boring, uncomfortable, and time-consuming! They wonder why their muscles can’t just be limber and flexible on their own and curse their hamstrings for always feeling so darn tight.
But, even though most of us are not huge fans of it, regular stretching is really important for flexibility, joint health, and injury prevention. And you don’t have to spend two agonizing minutes yanking on tight muscles to get these benefits. There is more than one way to stretch a quad, and many benefits to be gained from doing so!
1. The Benefits of Stretching: Static Stretching
Static Stretching Increases Flexibility
The majority of the time someone mentions “stretching,” they are referring to static stretching- applying a sustained stretch to a specific muscle group and holding it for anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. Through decades of sports science research and advancements in the field of sports medicine, static stretching has remained an integral part of training in sports like gymnastics, martial arts, and ballet.
There are mountains of evidence and anecdotal experiences showing that static stretching, done properly and consistently, will most definitely improve your flexibility. The general recommendation for effective static stretching to increase flexibility is 3 holds for 30 to 120 seconds per muscle group, performed 5 to 7 days per week.
If you are looking to build flexibility so you can send a kick flying over your head or drop into a full split, static stretching is most certainly an effective, tried-and-true approach. If you’re already performing static stretching and enjoying it, there is absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to practice it.
However, if you are not looking to be as flexible as a gymnast, and you hate static stretching, let me be the one to tell you you don’t need to do this kind of stretching. Study after study has shown that, while static stretching does increase flexibility, it does NOT prevent injury. I am in no way against static stretching, but I am against making people feel guilty for not wanting to do it- there are other, better forms of stretching if injury prevention is your goal. Should you perform static stretching? Depends on your goals. Should you practice some form of stretching? Absolutely. Read on to find out why and how.
2. The Benefits of Stretching: Dynamic Stretching
Dynamic Stretching Prevents Injuries
The best coaches love a good warmup routine. I remember my high school track coach having us spend a solid 10 minutes going through hops, skips, leg swings, lunges, and more. We had to do this before we could even think about running the track. In grade school, our Taekwondo instructor had us swing our arms and legs in all directions, make circles with our hips, backs, and arms, and jump, spin, and roll around the mats before we performed a single punch or kick. These warmups, my running friends, are otherwise known as dynamic stretching. They involve taking a limb or area of the body and twisting or swinging it all the way in one direction, then all the way in the other direction repeatedly. Coaches love these types of warmups because they intuitively know what research has now proven: dynamic stretching reduces the risk of injuries during training and competition.
Let’s use hamstring strains as an example. In general, this kind of injury happens when tight hamstring muscles are suddenly stretched out farther and faster than they can handle, causing a series of tiny tears that lead to pain, swelling, and lost training time. A dynamic stretch, like forward leg swings, gets the blood flowing, warms up the legs, and teaches the hamstrings to relax as they lengthen. This decreases the risk that they will tense up and tear when they are faced with a similar movement on a run.
The more your muscles practice rapidly expanding and contracting, the more they’ll be prepared for it during training. Not only does it make logical sense, but it’s also supported by a massive amount of research. This research shows that dynamic stretching before runs significantly decreases your risk of sustaining injuries during those runs.
The stretching routine does not need to be complicated or lengthy. 1 set of 10 leg swings forward and back and side to side, combined with a set of 10 lunges, marches, skips, hops, and shoulder twists is a great place to start. Do this before each and every training run if you want a quick, effective warmup that will prevent injuries.
3. The Benefits of Stretching: Eccentric Stretching
Eccentric Stretching Increases Flexibility AND Reduces Injuries
By now we have established that static stretching makes you more flexible, and dynamic stretching reduces injuries. That’s great, but wouldn’t it be even better if there was a form of stretching that did both?! As it turns out, there is! It’s called eccentric stretching.
Eccentric stretching involves slowly stretching a muscle to its maximum length under added tension, either with one’s own body weight, or an external force like a weight or resistance band. A great example is standing with your toes on the edge of a step, raising your heels up, then very slowly (5 to 10 seconds) lowering them down to a full stretch of the calf muscles, pausing for 1 second, then raising the heels back up. This has the dual benefit of lengthening the involved muscles AND strengthening those muscles in their new range of motion. In other words, greater flexibility and fewer injuries!
Similar to dynamic stretching, eccentric stretching teaches your muscles to lengthen under tension. So when you’re training, your muscles can handle any sudden shifts, stretches, or twists under tension with a much lower risk of injury in the process. The research on eccentric stretching is clear. It makes significant changes in muscle length (flexibility) and drastically reduces the risk of injury.
Eccentric stretching is best performed after runs or on a rest day so as not to overload the muscles too much right before a training run. My recommendation is to perform this kind of stretching 2 to 3 days per week, performing 3 sets of 5 repetitions lasting 5-10 seconds each. The quads, hamstrings, and calves should all be a focus for this kind of stretching in order to maximize flexibility and prevent injuries.
4. The Benefits of Stretching: Stretching Stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Ever heard of the “fight or flight” response? That’s controlled by our sympathetic nervous system which does things like slowing down digestion, sharpening focus, and increasing heart rate in response to a situation where we need to fight hard or run fast. It’s a great system to have when you’re training or racing and need your body to be primed to move. But once all that running is over with, your parasympathetic system should be kicking you into the “rest and digest” mode so your body can relax, recover, and rebuild after heavy exertion. Barring any significant health conditions, this will occur naturally over time as you stop running and take in some fluids and calories.
Do you stay a little too amped up after a run? Particularly if you’re running late in the evening and need to wind down quickly for bed? Stretching may be the answer.
Whether it’s a gentle, rhythmic form of dynamic or eccentric stretching, or some prolonged, relaxing static stretching, research shows that the act of stretching activates the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows your body and mind to calm down and recover. The specific muscle groups, position, and time spent stretching are not particularly important in this case. Instead, you should simply find a few stretches that feel good and relaxing. Don’t be too aggressive with them- and let yourself chill out for a bit.
So, Should I Stretch?
Yes, you should stretch. If you want extreme flexibility to do the splits or kick a can off someone’s head, practice static stretching. Do it – preferably – after training as opposed to before. If you want to prevent injuries, start all of your training runs with a warmup involving dynamic stretching. If you want to reduce your risk of injuries AND increase your flexibility, practice eccentric stretching after training or on rest days. If you want to recover faster, perform a gentle version of whichever kind of stretching feels best to you after training, before bed, or whenever you want to be in a relaxed state.
Everyone can benefit from some form of stretching, but the particular type depends on your preferences, goals, and training.
Author bio: Tristan Dimmick has over ten years of experience as a runner, fitness coach, and physical therapist, working with hundreds of individuals in fitness and rehab. He has competed in and coached clients through races from 5ks to marathons, sprint and Olympic triathlons, and all of the major obstacle course races, as well as CrossFit, Olympic Weightlifting, and powerlifting competitions.
Tristan combines his personal experience as a runner, work as a coach and therapist, and the best available evidence in sports medicine to train and rehab runners and other athletes to their maximum potential.