The field of Exercise Science is relatively new, and its research is turning much of what we accepted as standard advice on its head.
Years ago, it was always thought that a runner should warm up with stretching exercises to loosen the muscles, followed by a short walk to get the rest of the body working. Then launch into your run workout. Studies have shown that may not be the best way to protect your body and maximize performance.
The purpose of stretching is to lengthen and relax the long muscles, specifically those called into action when you run. Stretching also improves the range of motion in your joints, reduces soreness after a run, improves circulation, and reduces lower back pain. This is much different than warming up before a run. We now use the term “warming up” very literally – to elevate heart rate and breathing rate, get the blood flowing, and kick the nervous system into gear. Basically getting the body ready for physical exertion.
The latest research in exercise science suggests that a warm-up which mimics at a low rate the actual high intensity workout, is most effective at getting all of the required organs, muscles, bones, and ligaments working together. This allows them to be ready to perform when the more intense exercise begins. For runners, you’ll begin by walking for a few minutes, then light jogging, then running, all the time swinging your arms.
So where does that leave pre-run stretching?
According to Susan Paul, an exercise physiologist and program director for the Orlando Track Shack Foundation, “Recent research indicates that stretching before running may not be the best time because muscles are cold and therefore, not as elastic and may be more prone to injury… For a short time after stretching… muscle contraction and reaction time can be measurably longer and this temporarily weakens the muscle. Stretching after your run, when muscles and connective tissue are warm, appears to be the better time to include static stretching in your routine.”
In fact, the New York Times reported in April of this year that research done in Europe showed that all kinds of athletes who performed static stretching before a workout (with no additional warm-up) “reduced strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent, with the impact increasing in people who hold individual stretches for 90 seconds or more, [and] that muscle power generally falls by about 2 percent after stretching”.
The explanation for this may be that the muscles are doing exactly what we’re asking them to do – stretch, just like that elastic waistband in your sweats. And when they’re stretched without an accompanying rise in bloodflow and other activity, they stay loose and and take longer to respond to your body’s demands.
So how does this change your warm-up and cool-down? Pre-run stretches are okay, as long as they aren’t performed in isolation and are accompanied by a complete body warm-up. However, stretching is critical immediately after you run, to loosen muscles that have tightened up during your workout and to keep your back flexible, which takes considerable punishment when running. See the list of cool-down stretches at marathontraining.com.
It onlytakes a second to injure yourself and be sidelined for the season. Take the time to warm-up and cool down properly, and you’ll avoid the most common sports injuries.