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

Mon, 15 Mar 2004 01:38:59 -0500

Skipping Stretching


Grading the running classes I teach at the University of Oregon is easy. Come to a minimum number of classes (which I think is pegged too low) and you pass. If not, you don't. Attendance is everything in running.

The students also have the chance on the last day of class to get even. They grade the teacher by saying what they like (and don't) about him and the course.

My reviews are mostly good. But one comment comes after every class: "Why don't we stretch? I thought this was a must for runners."

I don't talk about these exercises, demonstrate them or ask anyone to do them. If students insist on stretching, I tell them to wait until after the run and do it on their own.

I'm of mixed mind about stretching exercises. I take a few of them each day, lasting no more than five minutes, but more out of habit than strong belief in their worth. If nothing else, these few minutes let me cool down a little after the run before getting on with my day.

My two main complaints about stretching: (1) It's too often done at the wrong time for the wrong reason, and (2) it's done too much and draws attention away from the main event -- which is the running.

Stretching has value, but not as a warmup. Stretches don't warm the muscles, and overstretching can injure cold ones. (Which the great irony of this activity -- causing the very problems it is supposed to prevent.)

The time to stretch is AFTER the run -- or at least after the active warmup and before the faster running begins. Post-run group stretches would be a problem in my classes because the runners finish at different times, sometimes 15 or 20 minutes between the first and final one.

Plus our time is tight in the classes. In the allotted 50 minutes we already must squeeze the instructions, warmup, main run and cooldown.

To schedule stretching would steal minutes from something more important. I don't want to give students the impression that stretching is an essential, inseparable part of running.

It isn't. For runners of this age and at this stage, it's optional at best.

The young and new runners don't need to stretch much, if at all. They're already flexible, bending easier and farther than they ever will again as runners.

Running tightens the runner. That's a normal and natural reaction, and a good one if it doesn't go too far (as it probably has with me).

Legs lose flexibility as a training effect. It gives them needed spring and bounce. If this sport required maximum looseness, the best runners would be yogis.

The sport's most active adviser, Jeff Galloway, doesn't stretch or recommend it. He cites a study that stretching is the third-leading cause of running injuries.

I've never seen this report but don't doubt it. The word "overstretching" might go with it. The wrong stretches, done wrong at the wrong time probably produce the injuries.

Another study (that I have seen and quoted) surveyed all available scientific literature on stretching. Conclusion: no solid evidence that these exercises reduce the number or severity of injuries.

I would tell students all of this, but there isn't time. What little we have is best spent on the main event, not the sideshow.


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