For years we were told that we were rubber bands—that if we didn’t stretch we’d turn crusty and snap from disuse. Then we were told that tension was good and that if we were overstretched, we’d be akin to a loose and useless rubber band. And now you might be feeling more like a yo-yo than a rubber band.
So what’s the actual deal with stretching? What does it do for runners? And when should it be utilized? Well, that depends on what type of stretching you’re talking about.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
In regards to the rubber band analogy, David Behm, professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland, describes stretching to be more of a Goldilocks scenario: “You want a tighter but not too tight muscle and tendon,” he says. Static and dynamic stretching serve different purposes in helping your body reach that homeostasis needed to keep running efficiently.
Static stretching usually involves moving a joint as far as it will comfortably go and then holding it. A static hold can last 30 seconds or more. It’s a very effective way to increase range of motion, relax muscles, and prevent post-exercise stiffness and soreness. Hurdler stretches or kneeling hip flexor stretches are considered static.
Dynamic stretches are controlled, active movements aimed at helping your muscles rehearse the type of movement they’ll be doing while running. This kind of stretching activates the muscle, causing it to contract and physically warm up. “It also warms up and prepares the nervous system by increasing its activity in anticipation of the activity,” says Behm. Walking lunges, leg swings, and heel to sky pulses are all examples of a dynamic stretch.
But stretching isn’t just about your muscles and tendons. A study, published recently in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, found that stretching can also lower blood pressure by physically stretching the blood vessels. The authors found that stretching was more effective in doing so than walking was, a common intervention prescribed for people with hypertension.
When Should Runners Stretch?
When just fitting the run into your schedule is hard enough, you might be tempted to cut corners in your warm-up and cool-down routines. But here’s why you should consider keeping up stretching.
Stretching Before a Run
Stretching as part of a warm-up seems to be where the most confusion comes in. It’s a common question: Should you stretch before running?
Static stretching, when held in long durations, can actually cause you to tense up and get tighter, which is not what you want right before going for a run. “A static stretch would be great if we were about to go hold a static position for an hour. But when we’re running we’re about to go do repeated muscle firing for a set duration. We need to be getting our bodies ready for that physiological movement, not a 30 second static hold,” says Mackenzie Wartenberger, head coach of the University of Wisconsin’s women’s cross country team and assistant track and field coach.
Instead she recommends focusing on dynamic stretches as part of your warm-up routine. The idea is to push your range of motion. “It’s all about pushing right to the point where you can feel it — it should feel a little bit like you’re on the edge of that range of motion—and then immediately backing off,” she says. That process should be repeated three to five times, aiming to go two percent deeper on each repetition. “That contraction or extension depending on what movement you’re doing that’s rapid and repeated, warms your muscles up and it gets your muscles and tendons firing.”
Nell Rojas, a strength and running coach and pro runner herself, agrees that dynamic stretching should be incorporated into the mobility work in a warm-up. “It kind of tricks your muscles, neuromuscularly, to relax,” she says. “You’re not getting any lengthening in your muscles, but your body will be able to relax a little bit.”
Behm’s research has showed that some static stretching in a warm-up is fine. Some coaches like to incorporate a static hip stretch into the warm-up, for example. “If static stretching is incorporated within a full warm-up, there are trivial effects on performance,” he says. “Static stretching can decrease muscle and tendon injuries, especially with explosive actions, but stretching does not decrease the incidence of all cause injuries.”
DEAR MAYO CLINIC: A few neighbors formed a running group to train for a marathon in 2021. I’m thinking about joining them as I know that running can be good exercise, but I’ve never run before. Is running a marathon actually good for my health? Should I do certain things to avoid injuries?
ANSWER: Being active and engaging in regular aerobic exercise is important for overall heart health and wellness. Typically, 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five days a week is recommended for most healthy adults. Running is a simple, low-cost exercise, and you should be commended for starting a new exercise regimen.
As a first-time runner, I’d recommend that you talk with your health care provider about any concerns, especially if you have any health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart issues or a history of prior musculoskeletal injuries. Ask your health care provider about any symptoms that you might want to watch for when you run.
Before starting out, I would suggest you invest in a good pair of running shoes and make sure that you warm up and stretch prior to any run. Focus on cross training with exercises that strengthen your hips and core.
If your neighbors are seasoned runners, you may want to consider joining a training program to help you build stamina and increase your mileage over time.
As a novice runner, a marathon may sound overwhelming, but recent research shows that it really could be the key to better health. A study out of the United Kingdom showed first-time marathon runners significantly improved their cardiovascular health during training for a 26.2-mile race.
Specifically, this study showed participants had improvements in overall cardiovascular health but particularly related to the stiffness of the aortic vessel. This is important because as people age, the body’s vessels become stiffer. This can be detrimental to your health since with stiff vessels your body has to work harder to pump blood.
In addition to runners having a substantial decrease in the stiffness of the aortic vessel, which moves blood throughout our body, the study found marathon training improved blood pressure.
The study looked at marathon runners six months prior to training and three week after they completed the London Marathon. On average, the subjects ran about 6 to 13 miles in training per week.
If running a marathon seems too daunting, consider a half marathon or a 5K. The cardiovascular benefits of running remain, no matter the distance. One of the most interesting findings of the UK study was that the slowest runners had the greatest improvements in cardiovascular health.
If running is not enjoyable or you have other issues — let’s say your knees or back make it challenging to run — you can still benefit from lacing up your sneakers. Walking regularly at a brisk pace can result in improvements in overall cardiovascular health and vessel stiffness.
Whatever activity you chose, the key is that you want to aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity five days a week. Walking or running with the neighbors is a great way to combine exercise and socialization. And if you’re wondering about the definition of moderate intensity, you should be able to carry on a conversation, but you should not be able to carry a tune. —Dr. Sara Filmalter, Family and Sports Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida
When it comes time to stretch, most people want to get done as soon as possible or skip it altogether. That’s not always the right move—it pays to give your mobility your full attention. If you’re impatient, this full body mobility exercise from trainer Sean Garner, C.P.T., will get you ready to perform more efficiently.
The exercise, the Brettzel stretch, aims to mobilize your thoracic spine, stretch your hip flexors, and, if you buy into Garner’s hype, stretch out your soul. That last claim might be a bit out of left field—but if you’re ready and willing to embrace the move whole-heartedly, you’ll definitely feel much better after a full session.
How to Do the Brettzel Stretch
To perform the Brettzel stretch, start on the ground. Lay on one side, extending your bottom arm and leg straight out. Bend your top leg at the knee over the other at a 90-degree angle and rest it on the ground as you reach behind yourself with your top arm. Grip your bent knee with the bottom hand, pulling slightly to drive your knee into the ground. Bend your bottom leg and grab your foot with your top hand, pulling your heel toward your butt. Finally, release any tension in your neck and allow your head to relax.
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As you hold the Brettzel position, focus on pressing your top knee to the ground, pulling your back leg to your rear, and finally pulling your top shoulder blade toward the ground as you slightly rotate to look upwards.
Hold the stretch on each side for 40 seconds each. If you’re struggling to stay in the position at all, that’s okay, too—work your way up to 40 seconds in 10, then 20 second increments.