“To stretch, or not to stretch, that is the question.” We all know these were Shakespeare’s true words, not that philosophical mumbo jumbo!
If you’re a runner, you’ve asked yourself this question before. Well, not in this exact format, but a variation of it.
Your muscles are aching. Your legs are stiffer than two pogo sticks. And your hip staged a coup and has been operating independently for the past few months.
None of it feels right.
Friends tell you to stretch, and it’ll help everything. Other friends mention that stretching does nothing, and you shouldn’t waste your time.
It can’t be both. So, does stretching after running work?
What is Stretching?
This may sound a bit simplistic. But let’s lay down some terms before we continue so we clear up any confusion.
There are two types of stretching: static and dynamic.
Static stretching is the type of stretching most people are familiar with. You stand, sit, or lie down, and hold a specific position for some time, usually around 10-30 seconds.
There are many benefits to static stretching:
- Greater range of motion
- Reduced stiffness in tight muscles
- Decreased stress
- Increased blood flow
Static Stretches Examples
Overhead Triceps Stretch
Seated Butterfly Stretch
Dynamic stretches focus on active movement. These stretches move your joints and muscles through their full range of motion.
The motions will be like the movements of the activity you will be doing. Doing this reduces the chance of injury from jumping straight into your workout.
For example, a runner doing hip openers or a swimmer doing arm circles.
This helps prime the body for the upcoming activity. Just like static stretching, there are benefits to dynamic stretching also:
- Warms up muscles
- Increases nerve activity
- Uses full range of motion
- Decreases injury risk
Dynamic Stretches Examples
Lunge with a Twist
Standing Hip Openers
Stretching Before or After Running: Which Is Better?
Now that we’re on the same page, let’s answer the question we’re all seeking the answer to: does stretching after running work?
When we stretch, we’re relieving the tension and stiffness in our muscles. Yet, runners rely on this stiffness for better running form.
For a practical example, let’s imagine we have two runners — a man and a woman. The woman stretches regularly, and the man never stretches.
Due to the stretching, the woman has less stiffness in her muscles and tendons, as well as a higher range of motion. The stretching she does regularly lends itself to excellent flexibility.
The man is the opposite, his tendons and muscles are stiff and tight. As a result, his range of motion is low, as is his flexibility.
With each step, their legs and cores work to keep them stable. But, with a greater range of motion comes less stability. As the woman’s core moves around with each jolt of a step, her muscles work to keep her upright and stable.
The man is rigid. His muscles and tendons are tight, not allowing for much movement in his core, and therefore keeping him more stable.
But why is flexibility important here?
The less your muscles have to work to keep you upright, the more energy can be focused on improving running economy. And running economy is one of the most influential factors in becoming a stronger runner.
With higher flexibility, you have a higher range of motion, and thus your muscles have to work harder to keep everything stable.
Imagine a building during an earthquake. It needs the right balance between flexibility and rigidity to stay upright. For runners, it’s a similar deal.
“What about recovery and injury prevention?”
Long story short, stretching doesn’t seem to have any effect on running, period.
But this doesn’t mean stretching is bad. In fact, many experts suggest that you keep stretching if you feel it gives you a benefit.
There is a time you should avoid stretching at all costs, though.
When is the Best Time to Stretch
Avoid stretching during your warm-up. Rather, you should avoid static stretching pre-run.
Studies show that static stretching decreases running performance when performed during a warm-up. Besides pre-run, you can stretch away with no known adverse effects.
When you perform static stretches pre-run, you are releasing the tension and elasticity of your muscles — a critical part of a more economical running style.
So, what should you do pre-run?
What to Do Before a Run
Instead of static stretches, add in dynamic stretches. These don’t have to be elaborate and can only take a few minutes.
From there, start slow. Walk, then progress to a jog, before getting into your workout.
This may seem like a lot, but, in total, your warm-up can take around 10 minutes. And that’s 10 minutes to help ward off injuries from lousy preparation.
What to Do After a Run
So, this begs the question, what exactly should you do after a run if stretching doesn’t have a proven impact?
There isn’t evidence (yet) that a postworkout cooldown will improve your running performance. Yet, there is evidence that it assists in your body’s transition back to baseline.
During your run, your body requires a lot. Your heart is pumping, your lungs are heaving, and your body is being pushed harder than usual.
But, everything doesn’t return to normal the moment you stop your watch. A postworkout cooldown lets your body transition back to the status quo safely.
Do Nothing and Relax
One of the most overlooked aspects of training.
As runners, we’re busy. We’re used to being on the move and attempting to occupy our time as much as possible.
But we’re doing our bodies a disservice.
Your body will thank you later.
Stretching comes down to a personal choice. Studies so far have not proven any benefits from stretching, but more research has to be done in the area to come to a firm conclusion.
For now, support your body with a proper warm-up, cool down, and rest. All of these have been proven to support better running.
And, that’s what we’re after, right?