Flexibility is a common concern for runners, but there is so much information out there it is hard to know where to start. Most runners should take a step back and figure out if they actually need more flexibility. A common misconception is that improving flexibility will automatically improve performance, but the reality is that tight muscles can offer some advantages for runners. Research shows that tight muscles are more efficient at storing and returning elastic energy. This means that a tight muscle could let you run a longer distance with the same effort. To help picture this think of you calf muscle as a rubber band: when your foot strikes the ground the rubber band (calf) stretches and then snaps back to help drive the next step. If the rubber band is too loose it won’t snap back with enough force to help pushing off, reducing performance and increasing injury risk.
While there are some disadvantages to flexibility there are also some advantages. Flexible muscles are less susceptible to exercise-induced damage, this means that a flexible runner is going to have less soreness after an intense workout and be able to keep up with a more demanding training schedule. Flexible muscles are also less likely to be injured by a rapid stretch of the muscle.
Now let’s take a look at tight muscles. If that rubber band from above is so tight that it doesn’t lengthen when the foot hits the ground it will be unable to absorb the impact and that force will travel to the joints instead. These muscles will also be more likely to become sore after training and are more prone to muscle injury.
So the real question is should runners stretch? This is going to depend on the individual; the goal of your training should be to get away from the extremes. A runner who is extremely tight and a runner who is extremely flexible are both more prone to injury or performance issues.
Runners who are extremely tight or tighter on one side than the other should incorporate some stretching and flexibility training into their daily routine. High mileage runners usually benefit from regular stretching as well because it improves their ability to tolerate heavy workouts.
Runners who are overly flexible should incorporate some strength training and agility drills to improve muscle coordination. Recreational runners may not need to invest the time for a long term stretching program if they are not overly tight or asymmetrically tight (tighter on one side) because they are less likely to see significant benefits. However if you are a runner who routinely stretches or feels like they perform better with a stretching routine you should continue to stretch. A large study of recreational runners showed no significant difference between stretching or non-stretching running routine but if a runner who normally stretches was put into a non-stretch routine they were nearly twice as likely to be injured. This shows that runners are often the best judge of what is right for their bodies.
If you decide to start a stretching/flexibility routine you should be aware that experts suggest it takes 4-6 months of regular stretching to produce real length gains. Short term stretching gets the muscle to relax and appear to lengthen but does not improve flexibility. The good news is stretching does not take very long, performing a few 30 second stretches throughout the day is enough to improve flexibility and range of motion. The most effective way to lengthen a muscle is to massage or hold pressure on specific trigger points before stretching the muscle for 30 seconds. To find these point scan the muscle by rolling with a foam roller or massage stick and noting the uncomfortable areas. Massaging these points followed by a 30 second stretch can produce more rapid length gains. Active dynamic warm ups that stretch muscles and warm them up at the same time also work well and are preferred by many runners and have been shown to increase sprint speeds.
Even the perfect training plan can’t prevent all injuries but being proactive about your health and performance may help keep you doing what you love.
For good instructions on stretches and dynamic warm-ups I recommend the book Injury Free Running by Dr. Thomas Michaud. This book can also be helpful for you to self-evaluate your flexibility and overall running health. This article should not be used as medical advice on its own and if you have an injury or pain you should consult a healthcare provider to determine what is best for you.
If you are currently dealing with a running injury or are looking to help prevent future injuries with a program tailored to you give us a call at 651-454-1000.
Dr. Adam Ebbers
Acu-Chiropractic Wellness Center, PA