Stretching for Running & Run Stretches

How important is stretching for runners?  Opinion seems to be divided, with some runners stretching religiously before and after every workout, while others rarely if ever stretch.  So who is right?

As with many things, figuring out whether there is any benefit from stretching for runners depends on what you do, and how and when you do it.  The problem is that so much of what runners do is actually ineffective.  Let's look at the facts.

Research has actually addressed the effectiveness of stretching for runners, and found that one practice in particular is counter productive – stretching before you run or as part of a warm up.

The reasons are simple – when you stretch, your body reacts with something called the stretch reflex.  This is the body's way of protecting itself, to stop you from over-stretching, but the result is that when you finish a particular stretch, for the next hour or so, you are actually tighter than you were before you did the stretch!

Secondly, the practice or warming up, then stretching, and finally running, is also counter productive – the warm up is designed to elevate your heart rate and warm your muscles.  Stretching does the exact opposite, allowing your heart rate to slow and your muscles to cool. 

So what should you do?  The research is absolutely clear on this – stretching for runners should be performed after your workout, as a part of your cool down.  It helps your body to relax, and begins the healing and recovery process for your muscles after a workout.

The other issue is the type of stretches that you do.  The most common type of stretching is what is called static stretching – this is where you hold a stretch for between 30 and 60 seconds.  While this type of stretching is effective as part of your cool down, most Olympic athletes now practice a form of stretching called Active Isolated stretching, or AI for short.

AI stretching has a lot of hype surrounding it, and is claimed to improve athletes' effectiveness, make substantial improvements in muscle elasticity, transform strength into explosive power and help prevent injury.  It is also claimed that it transports oxygen to sore muscles and removes toxins from the muscles, so recovery is faster.

So how does AI stretching work?  The key principal of AI stretching is that you contract the muscle opposite the isolated muscle, allowing the isolated muscle to relax in preparation for the stretch.  So if you are going to stretch your quads, you would first contract the hamstrings prior to performing the stretch.

The other key element of AI stretching is that you stretch the muscle quickly –ideally, for no longer than two to three seconds.  By doing a short, gentle stretch, you don't activate the stretch reflex.  You then repeat the stretch three to five times.

This short, sweet form of stretching is gaining popularity with athletes around the world.  Why not add it to your training program?