To Stretch Or Not To Stretch? Good Question!

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Many of us have played various sports in our younger years and have approached running as a way to get some exercise in as an adult.  There are a lot of questions you might have about running and getting started.  How and when you should stretch and/or warm-up is a question I get asked often.

Stretching is actually the process of increasing your flexibility or range of motion.  Static stretching is probably what you remember from junior high and high school, such as sitting in a circle and touching your toes is a great example.  This type of stretching doesn’t require any movement.  But you are going to want to think twice about doing static stretching before you head out the door for a run.

First of all running does not require a lot of range of motion, so there isn’t really much need for you to work at increasing your flexibility.  More importantly, stretching cold muscles before you head out for your run, which is when they are at their weakest, can actually cause more harm than good.  A lot of research shows that increasing your flexibility doesn’t actually decrease your odds of injury.  It simply just makes you more flexible.  However, stretching those cold muscles can cause them to tear and nobody wants that.

A lot of people use the terms stretching and warm-up interchangeably but they are actually very different.  While stretching works at increasing your flexibility, warming-up does exactly that, it warms up your cold tight muscles.  If you are new to running and want to do something before you head out for your run, a warm-up is what you are looking for.  This is also important for athletes who are injured or prone to injury.  Warming your muscles up can decrease your likelihood of injury.  If you already are injured but have the go ahead to run from your doctor, you will definitely want to make sure you warm-up before most activities.

Unlike static stretching, warming up with a series of dynamic stretches will help heat up your body temperature, increase your heart rate, and get blood flowing through your body.  Dynamic stretching uses the movement of muscles you will be using in your performance to get your body revved up for performance.  By doing 5-10 minutes of this type of warm-up your body will be ready to head out for your run and perform at its best.

All you need to do for this type of warm-up is some light walking, jogging, marching with arm swings, hopping, or slow walking lunges.  All of this is to be done nice and slow as a way to wake your body up for the upcoming workout.  You can also add in some strides at the end of your workout as another form of dynamic warm-up.  Throwing a few strides in right before you take off at the start of a race is also great plan of action (plus it makes you look like a pro!).

Getting my stride on indoors since Chicago turned into a skating rink.

Getting my stride on indoors since Chicago turned into a skating rink.

If you still feel the need to add static stretching into your routine keep in mind that it is best to do this on warm muscles.  Static stretching works best either post run or any other time your muscles are already warm.  Sometimes if my muscles are feeling a bit achy and tight, I find that a post hot shower stretch is the best for me.  Just remember that if you do these stretches never do them on cold muscles and do not bounce as you hold the stretch.  Also make sure to work both sides as you stretch.  So if you stretch out your right calf, make sure not to neglect the left calf.  Finally, don’t ever push through a stretch if it is painful.  Don’t be a hero and try to painfully ease yourself into the splits.  If it hurts, it means stop.

Happy running!

23 thoughts on “To Stretch Or Not To Stretch? Good Question!

  1. Great post. I never ever stretch except for the occasional back stretch. I stopped stretching(especially the static kind) many years ago when I realized there was no scientific evidence suggesting it was helpful for preventing injury or improving performance in runners. More and more, the scientific evidence shows it is useless for runners and similar activities.

  2. I know I should stretch more, but sometimes I just do a cursory calf and hamstring stretch and call it good! Then I’ll stretch after a hot bath and that really seems to help!

  3. Great post with lots of good info. Another blogger said stretching can reduce your endurance by 30%! If it increased my endurance by 5%, I’d do it.
    I stretch on my off days as part of my weight training. I also stretch and roll while watching TV so I don’t feel like I’m completely wasting my time.
    My problem is that I often forget to stretch after a run. I’m getting better, but I don’t do as much as I should.

    • Sometimes in the summer I think our older neighbors on the lake think I am nuts doing my dynamic stretching. We also share a private dirt road that I do my strides on. I think I amuse them.

  4. That’s really great info!

    I think I’m one of those that got ‘stretching’ and ‘warm-up’ mixed up … or think of it as interchangeable. But after reading this I can see the difference now. (I’m not sure how this escaped me, as I work out at the gym a lot and KNOW this info has been passed on to me by some trainers … bad me for not remembering.)

    I do warm-up nowadays before doing a run. It’s amazing how much better the run goes. Not only does my body feel a LOT better when I warm-up, but its slowly dawning on me that my run times seem to be a bit better when I do a proper warm-up.

    Thanks for a great post.

  5. Oh … leaving another comment (sorry … being talky here) …

    I know a couple blogs ago (“Yes You Are A Runner”) you were mentioning that whether you ran a fast or slow minute-mile was irrelevant … that you’re a runner if you run 🙂

    That being said, I noticed in the photo you have here that at the indoor place, there is a lap for running, one of jogging, and one for walking.

    Question – what is the difference between running and jogging? (I ask because at one of the run events my wife and I signed up for it said to line up at the starting area based on whether you were a runner or jogger. And I am confused … thought that is kinda normal on my part 🙂 )

    • This is a great question. To be honest I guess you personally would have to decide at the track or event if you are keeping a pace that is fast enough to “run” among others. If you are running what feels to you to be easy or your pace feels to be at the back of the pack it might be considered jogging.

      That being said, others may say you’re jogging, but its still running.

      Thanks for your comments!

  6. Before a race I always do a little bit of warming up (generally just jogging on the spot and high knees), but other than that I always stretch out my quads before a run, and after a run I do loads of stretching out all the leg muscles.
    I injured myself a few years ago and my physio told me that it was likely from not doing any stretching after running and so I’m very diligent in that department now.
    And I love the feel of a good stretch after a good run 🙂

  7. I used to stretch after every run (never before), and have found that I have significantly fewer injuries now that I don’t stretch. I’ve changed a few other things to, so I can’t pinpoint the stretching as the sole contributor of my injuries, but I’ve got no plans to change anything right now!

  8. Great tips! Some people still do stretch before exercises and running, but I tell my friends not to do that for the exact reasons you listed. I give them the example of a rubber band. If you were to stretch a cold rubber band it would probably break/not be as elastic as a warm rubber band. I love dynamic warm-ups!

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