Stretching has long been an essential part of the training routine for runners and is being used as a tool of preparation, performance enhancement and injury prevention. Stretching regularly results in good flexibility which is an important component of fitness.
For long-distance runners, chronic overuse injuries are common. Some of these include medial tibial stress syndrome, plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonopathy, stress fractures and various knee injuries. When these injuries strike, it can be devastating.
This is why endurance runners often use stretching so they can minimise the risk of injury.
But how much help can stretching really provide for runners?
Before jumping into that, we need to take a closer look at what running economy is.
What is Running Economy?
Running economy is used as a standard measurement for the overall competency of runners. It determines the performance of endurance runners and is measured by the energy demand of a runner at a specified velocity.
It is a result of a number of metabolic, cardiorespiratory and biomechanical characteristics including VO2 max, lactate threshold and running efficiency.
In other words, running economy is defined as the steady state of oxygen consumption, at a given running velocity, reflecting the energy demand of running at a constant submaximal speed.
Runners commonly perform acute stretching during their warm-ups before training and competition.
But in the paper written by Claire Baxter et al, it mostly seems that stretching can reduce a running economy.
Mainly, the idea is that an endurance event reduced mechanical efficiency of the lower body primarily by reducing musculotendinous stiffness.
In the study, it showed that acute stretching prior to endurance-based events doesn’t do anything for athletes performance-wise and can even reduce it.
The researchers say that improved running economy may be due to more stabilized hips and a less required muscle activation at foot strike to maintain stability.
Additionally, acute stretching can strain the muscle and cause a decrease in force development and an increase in oxygen requirement within the hour after stretching.
So this means stretching isn’t exactly a useful or effective tool in warm-ups of long-distance runners. The study also suggests that endurance athletes may find it best to reduce their warm-up routine to a low-intensity, progressive run.
Chronic stretching does not seem to have beneficial effects as well. When it comes to DOMS, the study says that stretching can’t reduce its longevity or intensity. As for injury risk, stretching doesn’t seem to help much for endurance runners.
Does This Mean Stretching is a Waste of Time?
When it comes to running, flexibility is important. Although it may be a factor when it comes to injury risk, it’s certainly not the only one.
If stretching is bad for running economy, then why would runners still bother to stretch?
Because it’s important for them to have a good range of motion in the ankles and knees.
Great runners tend to have a better range of motion in the hips than slower runners.
And don’t forget that stretching improves blood flow to sore or tight areas or by helping to work out scar tissue adhesions, that’s why it’s still great for recovery.
As long as you know when and how to stretch properly, the pros will still outweigh the cons. If you’re in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask for an expert advice from a physiotherapist!
If you’re preparing for an upcoming run or need help with your injuries, our Perth physiotherapists can help! Call us today on 9272 7359!
Claire Baxter, Lars R. Mc Naughton, Andy Sparks, Lynda Norton & David Bentley (2016) Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners, Research in Sports Medicine, 25:1, 78-90, DOI: 10.1080/15438627.2016.1258640