Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 11 Feb 2002 08:31:35 -0500

Stretching a Point


I stretch. My belief in these exercises and my practice of them are less than wholehearted, but each of my runs ends with a few minutes of bending and reaching.

Remember this as you read my report that might sound anti-stretching. I'm not against the practice itself, only against overdoing it.

These thoughts arise from a recent e-mail exchange with a reader. Dick Janisch wrote, "Running is subject to fads, those swings of contemporary wisdom that seem to make a splashy entrance but then fade from public view with all the speed with which they arrived."

He noticed while reviewing his 20-year stacks of running magazines that a few fads became trends and then fixtures. Stretching followed that course. It arrived suddenly in the 1970s and has stayed with us ever since.

"Stretching is an exception to the short shelf-life of ideas," said Janisch. "Does a significant body of research exist that bears out its viability as a preventer of running injury? Or do advocates depend essentially on
anecdotal evidence?"

I wrote back that for all we're urged to stretch, the evidence supporting it is scanty -- and sometimes contradictory. The party line is that it prevents injuries.

As editor of Runner's World in the mid-1970s, I jumped on a new body of information coming out at the time and used the magazine to promote it. Much of the evidence came from Dr. Herbert de Vries, a sports physiologist at the University of Southern California.

He declared that runners are too tight and need to add flexibility exercises to their routine. He said the best corrective stretches aren't the "ballistic" type -- the quick, bouncy, repeated calisthenics we'd known from high school sports. De Vries favored "static" stretches -- slowly reaching a point of discomfort and holding there.

Static stretching became the standard in running. It remains so.

But now I'm hearing (yet can't cite a source on this) that stretching is a leading CAUSE of the very injuries it is supposed to prevent. What are we to believe, that these exercises are panacea or pain?

If you're a stretcher, you keep toeing the party line. If you don't like to stretch, you quote a contrary view.

But what about those of us who stretch some but aren't true believers? I speak for runners who can't quite make up our minds.

OFFHAND OPINIONS of a semi-skeptical stretcher. Which is to say that I don't doubt the practice enough to drop it completely:

1. Stretching is overrated. Runners become tight-muscled because this is a normal and necessary adaptation to the activity. Otherwise why would running do this to us? Tightness is a training effect, making for a springy stride and not a floppy one. Overstretching works against that effect.

2. Stretching isn't for running. What's good for running might not be right for overall fitness. Flexibility is a piece in the fitness puzzle. Anyone seeking balanced fitness needs to counteract the supertightening of running with some exercise giving the opposite result.

3. Stretching doesn't eliminate injuries. Done wrong -- too aggressively and too much -- stretches cause more problems than they prevent. Done right -- gently and in small doses -- these exercises still don't promise pain-free running. The Big Three -- too much running, too fast, too often -- cause most of our injuries.

4. Stretching isn't a warmup. It doesn't start you sweating or raise your heart rate. Done before running, it delays the true warmup. You warm up by moving -- first by running slowly or walking, then by easing into the full pace of the day.

5. Stretching is for afterward. Warm muscles respond best to these exercises. Run first, then stretch. Saving the stretching until the end has added benefits beyond flexibility. It gives you a few extra minutes to cool down before you sit down. And it gives you the option of dropping the stretches instead of cutting short the run when time is tight.

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