It is a long held belief that static stretching (i.e. long holds of >15 seconds) plays an important role in improving running performance and decreasing injury risk.1 As such static stretching, undertaken as part of a ‘warm up’ prior to running or at the end of a run, or both, is a common practice amongst runners of all levels.
Running places significantly high loads through the joints and tissues (i.e. bones, tendons and muscles) of the body. As a result runners are at a risk of developing running-related overuse injuries such as knee cap related pain, illiotibial band syndrome, and achilles tendinopathy.2 Overuse injuries occur when running loads (i.e. frequency, intensity, and/or duration) are progressed too rapidly and exceed the capacity of the tissue to adapt (i.e. strengthen) to loading. This results in tissue overload and then injury. Other factors including deficits in muscle strength, past injury history and general health issues can also predispose a runner to injury.2
Research shows that stretching either in the short or long term has no impact on reducing the risk of overuse injuries experienced by endurance runners.1 In fact static stretching prior to running has been demonstrated to potentially inhibit performance for up to one hour.1 This is thought to be caused by a reduction in the mechanical efficiency of the lower body, primarily impacting the ability of the muscles and tendons to store and release elastic energy.3
Static stretching is often recommended to enhance recovery and reduce the impact of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Endurance runners commonly experience DOMS after particularly fast, hard or downhill running. DOMS results in muscle pain, stiffness and fatigue, commonly in the thigh muscles, and will inhibit a runner’s performance for several days.1 Unfortunately stretching has not been shown to reduce the intensity or the duration of DOMS following exhaustive exercise.1
It is important to point out that regular static stretching after running will not do any harm.
Stretching will improve joint flexibility but these improvements have not been associated with any benefits to recovery, performance or running economy in the long term.4
Runners should therefore consider other strategies that will assist them to prepare for and recover well from running. A progressive warm up including a gradual increase in intensity prior to harder running efforts or a ‘session’ is recommended. Elite athletes in all running sports implement this practice.
A typical active warm up for a runner could progress like this:
- 5-10 minutes of walking or jogging.
- Complete 6-8 dynamic movement drills for a total of 5-10 minutes that will move your joints through full range of movement with particular focus on the lower limbs e.g. walking lunges, leg swings etc.
- Finish with 3-4 fast running efforts at goal running pace e.g. 3-4×100 meters.
To enhance recovery, ensuring you are getting enough sleep i.e. 7-9 hours or more each night, is the most important, cost effective and time efficient recovery method available for runners.5 Getting more sleep has proven beneficial effects on performance and recovery.5
- Baxter, C., Mc Naughton, L. R., Sparks, A., Norton, L., & Bentley, D. (2017). Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Research in Sports Medicine, 25(1), 78-90.
- Saragiotto, B. T., Yamato, T. P., Junior, L. C. H., Rainbow, M. J., Davis, I. S., & Lopes, A. D. (2014). What are the main risk factors for running-related injuries?. Sports medicine, 44(8), 1153-1163.
- Yeung, S. S., Yeung, E. W., & Gillespie, L. D. (2011). Interventions for preventing lower limb soft-tissue running injuries. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
- Nelson, A. G., Kokkonen, J., Eldredge, C., Cornwell, A., & Glickman‐Weiss, E. (2001). Chronic stretching and running economy. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 11(5), 260-265.
- Bonnar, D., Bartel, K., Kakoschke, N., & Lang, C. (2018). Sleep interventions designed to improve athletic performance and recovery: a systematic review of current approaches. Sports medicine, 48(3), 683-703.