Female runner doing a walking lunge

Stretching for runners

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It’s a commonly held belief that stretching prior to exercise helps prevent injury. Many runners however, aren’t sure just how to choose the best stretches for optimal results.

With the ongoing debate about whether to stretch statically or dynamically, and before or after running, many runners are not sure on how to choose the best stretching strategy for optimal results and reduced injury.

Is it better to stretch before or after running? Does stretching help reduce injury or pain? Can stretching improve running performance? What is the best type of stretching? 

With these questions commonly asked of physios, personal trainers and exercise physiologists it is apparent that stretching still causes plenty of confusion.

Common types of stretching

The most commonly performed techniques can be broken down into static and dynamic stretches, although there are many different variations of these. 

Static stretches are the type many will be familiar with from childhood sports; passive positions held for a period of time, usually twenty to thirty seconds, aiming to gradually lengthen the muscles. 

Typical examples are the sit and reach type stretches, such as the hamstring stretch. Because of the static nature of these stretches people often tend to rush through them reducing any potential effectiveness.

Dynamic stretches are a bit more complicated, involving stretching the muscles and joints whilst moving. In dynamic stretching the limbs are purposefully moved into a lengthened position, preferably one that is activity or sports specific. 

Examples include slow jogging on the spot while bringing the knees up the chest or kicking the heels to the backside, or a slow walking lunge.
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Which should I choose and what does the research say?

The current thinking suggests that the common practice of static stretching before an athletic performance such as running may not be that useful in reducing overall injury rates. 

A study appearing in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport which analysed over 100 research papers published between 1966-2010 found that generally, static stretching before activity should be avoided as the only form of warm up. 

The researchers asserted that static stretching alone directly prior to exercise may have no additional benefit to injury prevention and may actually have a negative effect on maximal muscle strength and explosive performance.

Though other studies have found that static stretching may have a specific benefit to tendon and muscle injury only which may be of interest to runners, it is apparent that the best approach to take prior to running is an effective warm up session. 

The warm up session should consist of a combination of low intensity aerobic activity for example a walk or very light jog (even on the spot) followed by dynamic (preferably activity specific) movements/stretching.

The warm up is a crucial component of any exercise performance, especially prior to high demand activities such as sprinting and long distance running and is important in preparing for optimal performance and reduced injury.

As the total investment of time should be similar regardless of whether a person chooses static or dynamic stretching, there are few excuses for missing a proper warm up.

Dynamic stretches for running

Some examples of dynamic stretching include walking lunges, walking bringing the knees up to chest or kicking heels to the backside and standing high kicks.

What you need to know:
  • All dynamic movements should be performed slowly and with control through full available range of motion without jerky movements, over-stretching or pain
  • Each movement can be repeated a number of times for thirty seconds to one minute each as a rough guide
  • Individual programs will vary depending upon a person’s requirements, as there are many more different options
  • Not sure where to start or what stretches are best for you? See your physiotherapist of exercise physiologist to discuss your individual needs

Is there a place for static stretching anywhere?

Stretching regularly as part of a healthy lifestyle is a great way to combat the physical demands of modern life and the negative stresses that we place on our bodies through, for example, long periods of sitting at work or using a computer. 

A stretching break can also provide a great escape from the hustle and bustle of life and to relax the mind, all potentially reducing the overall likelihood of injury when it comes time to perform.

~This article first appeared on Sydney Physio Solutions~

Sydney Physio Solutions was established in 2007 with the aim to provide a high quality service in injury rehabilitation using state-of-the art technology in an innovative environment.

Their team of highly qualified and caring physios, led by founder and Managing Director Brad McIntosh, can do a running analysis and provide advice & assessment for the very best outcome.

Brad and the team are also our injury prevention experts for the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival so send them your questions at Ask a Physio and they’ll help you achieve your goals and get you over the finish line!