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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Stretching and Distance Running

Stretching is a controversial issue in all sports, but especially in distance running.  Some stretch ritually while others equate stretching to poison.  Knowledge about stretching best-practices remains varied, even at high levels.  Judge (2012) and found that pre-activity static stretching remains a standard practice in NCAA distance running programs, with more “non-certified” coaches implementing pre-run static stretching than certified coaches.  Our focus here will be on the literature specific to distance running, though literature from other sports will still be applicable depending on the mechanisms studied.

Stretching Ain’t Bad…

Mojock (2011) studied competitive female distance runners in which authors compared the effect of a pre-run static stretch with quiet sitting.  Statics stretching was shown to increase flexibility (measured by sit and reach) but had no effect on running economy, calorie expenditure, or endurance performance.  In short, pre-run static stretching was shown to be neither harmless nor beneficial for running.

These results confirmed prior findings by Hays (2007) with male competitive distance and middle distance runners.  Authors studied four conditions (a) a control condition, (b) static stretching, (c) progressive static stretching, and (d) dynamic stretching.  Each stretching condition was performed twice for 30 seconds.   All 3 stretching routines produced increased range of motion but there was no change in either running economy or steady-state.       

Though not a pure stretching study, Godges (1993) studied the effect of hip flexor stretching and trunk flexor exercises (crunches?) on running economy.  Despite favorable changes from interventions to both qualities “3-week intervention program of hip extension stretching or trunk flexion exercises, however, did not produce significant changes in walking or running economy.”   

And in a similar work with seventeen female runners, Beaudoin (2005) found no significant correlations between running economy and flexibility measures.  “[These] results are in contrast to studies demonstrating an inverse relationship between trunk and/or lower limb flexibility and running economy in males. Furthermore, results are in contrast to studies reporting positive relationships between flexibility and running economy.”

Allison (2008) also showed that despite significant changes to mobility, running economy showed no significant change.  In this study, the experimental group performed eight different stretches on each leg with each stretch held at 40seconds.  During follow up, the experimental group demonstrated improvements in range of motion, isometric strength and countermovement jump but showed no changes in oxygen uptake, minute ventilation, energy expenditure, respiratory exchange ratio and heart rate response to running.   

“Stretching is Bad”

First, there IS abundant evidence that pre-activity stretching is detrimental to certain performance metrics in other sports.  But as we know, distance running is quite different than explosive sports, which led me to isolate a few running-focused studies….  

Wilson (2010) was one such study showing a significant negative effect upon distance running performance with pre-activity stretching.  “Performance was significantly greater in the nonstretching vs. the stretching condition” as subjects ran covered a further distance in the timed run.  Additionally, authors found “significantly greater energy expenditure during the stretching compared with the nonstretching condition.” 

Why might stretching increase energy cost?  One theory is that “inflexibility in certain areas of the musculoskeletal system may enhance running economy in sub-elite male runners by increasing storage and return of elastic energy and minimizing the need for muscle-stabilizing activity.” (Craib 1996) (see also, Stiffness is a Strategy).  These findings are supported elsewhere in the running and stretching literature…

Jones (2002) found among 34 international level runners, there was a significant relationship between aerobic demand and sit-and-reach score. “These results suggest that the least flexible runners are also the most economical. It is possible that stiffer musculotendinous structures reduce the aerobic demand of submaximal running by facilitating a greater elastic energy return during the shortening phase of the stretch-shortening cycle.”

Trehearn (2009) studied eight collegiate cross country runners and noted, “Statistical analyses indicated a significant relationship between sit-and-reach scores and running economy at an absolute velocity, as well as a significant sex difference in sit-and-reach scores. The significant relationship demonstrates that the less flexible distance runners tended to be more economical, possibly as a result of the energy-efficient function of the elastic components in the muscles and tendons during the stretch-shortening cycle.”

More recently, Lowery (2013) found that pre-activity static stretching increased one mile uphill run time by approximately 8% and also was shown to increase ground contact time.

Conclusion

If you want to stretch, there is evidence to support your decision.  If you don’t want to stretch, you can find ample support for that decision as well.  Though despite the evidence, “real world” applicability often depends on HOW the stretching is performed: duration, technique, timing, and whether it is paired with other warmups or soft tissue techniques.

Perhaps the most common reason I deter pre-activity stretching has little to do with performance but rather for health.  One theory is that tight muscles may signal a body’s attempt to prevent injury.  Tightness at rest may be a protective compensatory measure from the brain.  Correcting these issues may prove beneficial in the long term and stretching might be part of your solution, but immediately before running may be a suboptimal time for a stretching intervention. 

References

Lowery RP, Joy JM, Brown LE, Oliveira de Souza E, Wistocki DR, Davis GS, Naimo MA, Zito GA, Wilson JM.  Effects of Static Stretching on 1 Mile Uphill Run Performance.  J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr 12. [Epub ahead of print]

Judge LW, Petersen JC, Bellar DM, Craig BW, Bodey KJ, Wanless EA, Benner M, Simon L.  AN EXAMINATION OF PRE-ACTIVITY AND POST-ACTIVITY STRETCHING PRACTICES OF CROSS COUNTRY ANDTRACK AND FIELD DISTANCE COACHES.  J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Apr 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Mojock CD, Kim JS, Eccles DW, Panton LB.  The effects of static stretching on running economy and endurance performance in female distance runners during treadmill running.  J Strength Cond Res.2011 Aug;25(8):2170-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e859db.

Hayes PR, Walker A.  Pre-exercise stretching does not impact upon running economy.  J Strength Cond Res.2007 Nov;21(4):1227-32.

Godges JJ, MacRae PG, Engelke KA.  Effects of exercise on hip range of motion, trunk muscle performance, and gait economy.  Phys Ther.1993 Jul;73(7):468-77.

Allison SJ, Bailey DM, Folland JP.  Prolonged static stretching does not influence running economy despite changes in neuromuscular function.  J Sports Sci.2008 Dec;26(14):1489-95. doi: 10.1080/02640410802392715.

Jones AM.  Running economy is negatively related to sit-and-reach test performance in international-standard distance runners.  Int J Sports Med.2002 Jan;23(1):40-3.

Craib MW, Mitchell VA, Fields KB, Cooper TR, Hopewell R, Morgan DW.  The association between flexibility and running economy in sub-elite male distance runners.  Med Sci Sports Exerc.1996 Jun;28(6):737-43.

Beaudoin CM, Whatley Blum J.  Flexibility and running economy in female collegiate track athletes.  J Sports Med Phys Fitness.2005 Sep;45(3):295-300.

Trehearn TL, Buresh RJ.  Sit-and-reach flexibility and running economy of men and women collegiate distance runners.  J Strength Cond Res.2009 Jan;23(1):158-62. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818eaf49.

Wilson JM, Hornbuckle LM, Kim JS, Ugrinowitsch C, Lee SR, Zourdos MC, Sommer B, Panton LB.  Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance.  J Strength Cond Res.2010 Sep;24(9):2274-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181b22ad6.

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