Talk to any runner and they will likely have a strong opinion on most topics related to training, racing, and injury prevention. The topic of static stretching is no exception: whether or not to stretch before a run or only after, how long you should do it, and lately, whether you should ever stretch at all.
However, it is important to keep in mind the recipe for staying healthy and performing well is as individual as the number of runners out there, and you need to pick and choose the ingredients that will work the best for you. So here I present to you, our Salty Readers, some information on the now controversial practice of static stretching – and I hope it helps you decide whether or not it should be in the mix for you!
What is static stretching? When I say static stretching, I’m talking about the classic stretch and hold we were taught in grade school gym. It’s what those Runners World cover models standing their holding one foot behind their butt are doing – static stretching their quads. It’s what that dude at the gym does when he awkwardly puts his leg up on treadmill before getting his run on. It might be what you do to your calves after your runs. Until recently, it’s been a pretty ubiquitous practice among runners.
How does static stretching work? The mechanism of static stretching has to do with a part of your muscles called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). These sensory organs are located at the meeting points between muscles and tendons, and their job is to respond to changes in tension in your muscles. If there is too much tension in a given muscle it could get injured, so GTOs are little sentries placed to guard against this. When GTOs sense tension, they tell the muscle to relax by signaling to another part called the muscle spindle; these guys are responsible for signaling muscular contraction. In response to the GTO signal, the muscle spindle doesn’t give its own contraction signal to the muscle fibers, and muscular relaxation occurs. When the muscle is relaxed it is lengthened and can be stretched. This whole process is called autogenic inhibition, which interestingly takes about 30 seconds to kick into gear – hence the recommendation to hold static stretches for at least 30 seconds!
How can static stretching be helpful? Most people would agree some amount of flexibility work should be part of any running program. The implications for injury prevention are obvious: increasing range of motion, correcting muscular imbalances, decreasing strain on muscles and joints, improving proprioception and neuromuscular efficiency, just to name a few! However, enhanced flexibility can also have a positive effect on performance. If you are a healthier, more resilient runner, you can tolerate more volume and intensity in your training without breaking down, and it is this kind of consistency that leads to true performance gains.
Static stretching is one flexibility training modality that can be used – but it should be noted there are others, such as active isolated flexibility and dynamic stretching (I’ll get into these in another post). It’s just a matter of when and where in your training program you use each one. If you have a problem area that always feels tight or has persistently decreased range of motion, static stretching can modify that tissue, though it is most effective if performed daily and generally takes 4-6 weeks for noticeable improvement to occur.
The good news is, this does not have to be a lengthy, time-consuming process. Though traditionally prolonged bouts of stretching for at least 3 minutes 2x/daily were felt to be the most effective way to achieve sustained lengthening of tissues, a number of studies have shown that several sets of 30 second stretches performed 1-2x/daily can result in similar gains. If you have access to PubMed, you can see a couple of these studies here and here.
Can static stretching be harmful or make you slower? We’ve broached this topic before on Salty Running: Cinnamon’s post detailed some of the research arguing against the use of static stretching, particularly prior to a run. Even more recently, Simic et al, a Croatian kinesiology research group, performed an extensive meta-analysis of much of the existing literature on the subject and presented findings pertaining to the effect of static stretching on a number of performance measures. If you want to check the study out for yourself, you can see it here.
The analysis examined 104 published papers addressing the effect of static stretching on maximal muscle strength, muscle power, or explosive muscular performance. They found that static stretching negatively affected both maximal muscle strength and explosive muscular performance, though the effect on muscle power was unclear. However, shorter duration stretching (defined as less than or equal to 45 seconds) was not nearly as bad when compared with stretching for 46-90 seconds or more than 90 seconds. The take-home point: static stretching prior to races or quality workouts is probably not beneficial and may even have negative effects. But if you are going to do it, make sure you aren’t holding your stretches for longer than 45 seconds as the drawbacks were quite minimal at this time point.
When is the best time to use static stretching? Dr. Jeff Messer, a well-known high school coach in Colorado who mentored Tara Erdmann before she joined the Nike Oregon Project, uses static stretching as a “diagnostic.” After workouts, his athletes go through static stretching to identify any tight or sore spots that have come up during the workout so they can take pro-active recovery measures, rather than waiting for the fallout to present itself 24-48 hours later. As I wrote in a prior post, I often use it pre-run just to check the symmetry of the self-myofascial release work I do, but I usually follow it up with some active isolated flexibility and dynamic stretching. I also do it either post-run or during a completely separate session to work on loosening up my chronically tight areas, and I’ve had great results using it this way.
Do you use static stretching as part of your flexibility routine? When and how do you use it, and has it been helpful?