Flexibility and Running

Runners seek out to many disciplines and practices in their ongoing efforts to improve their running performance. One of the common is following some kind of stretching program – whether that is yoga, pre and post run stretching. The research shows however that is quite a stretch (pun intended) if you are intending to do this in the name of running faster times.

Some of the let’s-stretch rationale goes something like this.

  • If I’m sore, stretching will help me loosen up and get me on pace and complete my workout.
  • Look at the long strides of elite runners – they must stretch a lot.
  • Stretching will give me a longer more fluid stride.
  • I’m tight and therefore stretching will make me a smoother and therefore better runner (faster, more economical, less injuries, etc.)

Here’s what research is showing on stretching:

When it comes to injuries and injury prevention there are studies that show increased injury rates with those who stretch; neutral affects from stretching (no increase or decrease in injury rates); and a study that showed a 40% increased injury rates for those who change their routine (stretchers become non-stretchers and non-stretchers become stretchers). The bottom line on stretching and injury prevention is that it most likely won’t help; it may hurt; but if you are accustomed to stretching you may not want to stop and if you aren’t accustomed to it – don’t start.

However, though I introduce the previous data, I am not writing this post in order to restate what should be well-known now regarding dynamic warm-ups. Nor is it about stretching and injuries. I want to introduce another aspect related to stretching which is flexibility and running performance.

The thing is that there has been research (at least as far back as 2002) on flexibility and effects on running. This 2002 study of elite distance runners found that running economy (the amount of oxygen/energy you use up to cover a given distance) is negatively related to the traditional sit-and-reach tests. That’s right! The least flexible runners were the most economical. They went on to explain that stiffer “musculotendinous structures reduce aerobic demand”. This reduced demand was due to the “greater elastic return during the shortening phase of their strides”.

Perhaps a way to visualize this is to have two rubber bands. One is shorter and stiffer. It has some real “snap” to it when you extend it and let go. That snap is what more economical runners have in their muscles. The other band is like the ones you might find around your newspaper in the morning. It is weathered and worn. When you pull it back and let go – it just barely bounces back. That is an overstretched and over-flexible muscle group.

Though one way to get faster is to develop a longer stride (faster turn-over is the other) it is not best attained by stretching. Current conventional wisdom is to perform dynamic range of motion exercises before workouts and then if you like you can do the static hold-the-stretch type stretching after workouts. Many coaches and runners alike believe that lengthening those muscles will make you a faster runner by increasing your flexibility. Now, though there is a possibility that it may assist in lengthening a stride; static flexibility is not the same as dynamic flexibility or active range of motion (like the range of motion in a running stride). Besides, in the process of stretching it weakens the muscle and reduces power. That is not a winning combination.

Power and active range of motion must be developed to achieve a longer stride. Longer strides should be developed “organically” in workouts and drills that mimic the running-specific motion. Range of motion, plyometrics and stride drills that use progressively broader range of motion in the hips and lower legs should be conducted as part of training. This develops both the power necessary and the active range of motion necessary. If you believe that your stride is too short then you need such a program. Stretching is simply not the way to go to achieve longer strides.

How else do you develop into a more economical runner? High speed quality workouts. Whether you are a marathoner or miler this is the secret to improving your overall economy – not slow miles. The longer miles will develop your aerobic base but will running fast repeats will be the secret to faster running.

I’ll conclude with this. There is nothing wrong if you like to stretch. If you want to go practice yoga – go for it.  But be aware that if you are doing it to somehow improve your running you are on the wrong track. You do not need more stretching movements. In fact you may need tightening movements!

There are a number of articles out there now that outline proper ways to warm-up or cool-down without traditional stretching. Dynamic range of motion is what has shown the best approach. Here are several things to keep in mind as you do dynamic warm-up drills.

  1. Start with simple movements and go towards more complex movements.
  2. Start with less dynamic (less movement, more abbreviated, not as powerful movements) and move towards more dynamic.
  3. Start with shorter ranges of movement and as your body warms up, use progressively larger ranges of movement.
  4. If you want to really boost your opportunity to train your body to get faster then you move into full plyometric movements as part of your warm-ups. These powerful movements are just the ticket to get you on the way to longer powerful and more economical strides.

About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
This entry was posted in Range of Motion, Running, Stretching, Training Effectiveness. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Flexibility and Running

  1. Uninformed Opinion says:

    Are you implying that yoga is pure stretching? I’m an injury prone runner who doesn’t stretch, and I can hear why tighter is better when it comes to speed and efficiency/economy. However I’ve very recently taken up yoga (like 2 weeks ago) and my first impression is that it builds a whole lot of strength and enhances proprioception. I don’t care much about the meditation aspect and static poses, but there is a lot of movement involved which targets stabilizing muscles.

    Are you sure that the following is completely true? “If you want to go practice yoga – go for it. But be aware that if you are doing it to somehow improve your running you are on the wrong track.”

    There is a balance between overuse/recovery/injury/performance/speed, and I feel like bringing back some balance from cross training activities like strength classes, core, yoga and others might be a great asset that I have neglected for a while. I do agree that purely static stretching such as calf stretches leaves me perplex, and that dynamic stretching is a great way to improve very running specific motions. Other forms of ancillary training however (e.g. yoga) might have benefits in terms of maintaining some form of balance.

    Feel free to disagree and explain more. As I said I am a runner. Not a yogi. I am pathetically inflexible in both hamstrings/quads and hips, and I don’t think that’s very good long term, even if I’m most economical that way!

    • Dean Hebert says:

      No I am not implying that yoga is pure stretching – I did yoga for several years many years ago. The point is not to confuse what yoga OR stretching or many other activities for something they have not been shown to do. My post is very specific – it is about flexibility and economy. Yoga has not been shown to improve that in controlled studies.

      So, I am also clear on my advice to runners – if you like stretching or yoga or whatever, go for it. Perhaps using the term “improve” your running is what you take issue with. For beginners – who knows, because almost anything improves your running. And if you are injury prone and for whatever reason yoga keeps you from being injured – it may allow your running to improve. However, the context of my comment is on running economy. Yoga does not improve running economy. Period. And until I see controlled studies showing it does, that is where I’ll stand as far as advice to the general running public. So I don’t endorse yoga as something all runners should be doing. If someone believes that it works for them – stick to it. I don’t tell runners to stop if they like it.

      I get your point on all the cross training and core exercising. And I agree with that conventional wisdom. However I know of at least a couple studies that have shown that core strength that has been built from running itself may in fact be all that is needed. But the jury is out to make that completely conclusive. And so most all coaches advocate core work etc for balance and injury prevention. That appears wise. But here again, this cannot be confused with flexibility and economy.

      • Uninformed Opinion says:

        Excellent, thanks for taking the time to offer this added precision — much appreciated and your post is now crystal clear. Apologies for being somewhat confused after the first read. Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: How to Get Flexible Fast « pinoyathletics.com

  3. Pingback: How to Get Flexible Fast | pinoyathletics.com

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