The Long & Short of Stretching – What does science tell us?

This is aimed at anyone who wants to improve their endurance running performance and get the most out of their time spent training.

Firstly, please forgive me as I did not set out on writing a ~1000 word report on this, but I got rather stuck into it and wrote most of this around 1.00-2.30am last night. I have done my best to keep it as concise and understandable as possible following some time out of the review writing game.

As most people who know me will know, I work at a Leisure Centre – one which offers a wide array of classes for a similarly wide array of people. One of these is “Flex N Stretch”, which to my understanding was originally designed for vertical pole fitness enthusiasts. Sorry, I mean it’s a Pole Dancing Fitness class.

However – I do know of a lot of people who use the class who actually have little to no interest in pole dancing (please correct me if I’m wrong ladies!), and quite a lot of interest in running, and use the class to improve their flexibility. As the name suggests, there is a lot of stretching – a lot of partner work and a lot of static stretches. After a cancelled class I took it upon myself to run a small stretching session (and regarding foam rolling I will cover this another day), to focus on the major leg & hip muscle groups/complexes. I am a firm believer in maintaining flexibility (range of motion around your joints), mobility (your ability to utilise that range of motion effectively), and a combination of the two; yet the sport scientist in me compels me to investigate further. I wouldn’t want to waste a £10k+ education now would I? To be honest, I was never really the best at literature reviews and report writing, and I imagine if James, Lee or any number of the UKSCA coaches catch a glimpse of this they will be happy to pick apart this post with critique!

Anyhow, my findings were somewhat conflicting as with anything that involves scientific studies (for a somewhat cynical reference, go and watch Room 101 S13E02 – Terry Wogan on Health fads, although I couldn’t find a link anywhere). However, I will try and bullet point concisely what stretching can do for us endurance runners. and what we should and should not be doing in order to get the most out of our pins.

The Good

  • Some research shows that Dynamic Stretching improves strength & power. -1
  • Research also shows that Strength & Power training improves running economy. -2
  • Running Economy is your bodies oxygen requirement at a running speed.
    Better Economy = Easier Running.
  • Stretching Improves Flexibility & Range of Motion (but not necessarily mobility)
  • Better Range of Motion can lead to better Strength Training sessions through good, functional movement patterns; i.e. full squat vs half squat.
  • Post-exercise stretching releases IGF-1 and MGF (growth hormones) which can lead to increased strength gains and recovery.

The Bad

  • Static Stretching reduces endurance running performance -4
  • Increased Flexibility reduces Running Economy -5 & 30 minute running performance -6
  • Increased energy demands for endurance running after stretching -6 -7
  • Stretching has no significant effect on injury rates in runners-10

“What About Me!?” (WAM!?” for effect)

If you’ve made it this far, you might have noticed that stretching does not really do that much for us in terms of directly improve running performance. Yet it can allow us to train our strength more effectively? Interestingly, stretching also has no significant effect on injury rates in runners-10, yet certain types of warm-up can improve our performance significantly -9 (see below).

A benefit of stretching (specifically Dynamic Stretching) appears to have on our body, is that it allows us to enhance the gains from our strength training sessions by “warming up” the neuromuscular pathways (the connection between our brain and our muscles that produce a movement). This will allow us to train at a higher intensity and recruit more muscle fibres, which will produce a greater training stimulus on our bodies and increase the strength of our muscoluskeletal system and movement patterns.

In turn, our Running Economy (a key factor in running performance) will improve -8. Researchers pin this on the elasticity of our muscles and our ability to move efficiently, thus reducing the load on our energy systems (like riding a bike with pumped up tires and a well oiled chain).

To summarise:

  • Perform Strength & Power training to enhance elasticity in your muscles (not length, elasticity). -2
  • Utilise Corrective Exercises to improve your compound lifting technique.
  • Dynamic Stretches on Strength Training Days to ensure good ROM. This will improve the quality of your strength training sessions.
  • Perform a short low intensity cardiovascular warm-up for 5 minutes; followed by, a high intensity warm-up of 6x50m strides and 1x200m at target pace. -9
  • Need help on Corrective Exercises, Dynamic Stretching & Strength Training?
    You can contact me to arrange a session here.
  • Post exercise stretching combined with strength training will release growth hormones, improving recovery & strength gains.
  • Pump up your tires, and Oil your chain. Metaphorically speaking of course, unless you are a triathlete or cyclist – In which case you will want to do this as well.
  • Ditch the pre-exercise static stretches, unless prescribed by your Sports Physiotherapist.

- Matt

References

-1 Basic principles regarding strength, flexibility, and stability exercises.

-2 Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power

-3 Physiology of a Women’s Marathon Record Holder.

-4 Effects of Static Stretching on 1 Mile Uphill Run Performance.

-5 Sit-and-reach flexibility and running economy of men and women collegiate distance runners.

-6 Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance.

-7 Effects of dynamic stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance in trained male runners.

-8 Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners.

-9 Improvement of 800-m running performance with prior high-intensity exercise.

-10 Interventions for preventing lower limb soft-tissue running injuries.

Leave a Reply