“Do I Need to Stretch Before I Run?”
Well, the short answer is no. But it really depends on why you think you need to stretch.
I get this question from my runners all the time. In fact, two people asked me this exact question this week. That’s why I decided to record this episode.
It’s really confusing. More often than not, a few quick scrolls on social media will show you some random elaborate mobility drill that you need to do before you run. Runners often sheepishly “confess” to me that they are “really bad at stretching”. As if they’re telling me they don’t shower or brush their teeth.
Anyway, what I hope to do today is shed some light on what stretching does and doesn’t do so you can decide for yourself.
First up, let’s establish what we’re talking about here. Broadly speaking, there are two types of stretching. Dynamic and Static. Dynamic stretches are things like “high-kicks” or “butt-kicks”. Static stretches are more like the typical “foot up on the bench and bend forward to stretch your hammies” type of thing.
I would consider dynamic stretching more like a type of warm-up and it’s not what people usually think of when they say stretching. We’re going to stick to static stretching today. So things like hamstring stretches, calf stretches, glute stretches etc.
Effects of Stretching
Now, before we get into whether or not you need to stretch we need to establish what stretching actually does. If you stretch your hamstrings for 3 sets of 30 seconds you will experience a temporary increase in flexibility. It will last an hour or so. If you do that 2-3 times a day for more than 6 weeks, you’ll experience a longer-lasting change in your baseline hamstring flexibility.
So, essentially, stretching will make you more flexible in the short term and if you do it enough it will make you more flexible in the long term. Cool.
The question then becomes, will being more flexible help me?
Do I Need to Stretch Before I Run?
Like I said earlier, runners ask me if they should stretch all the time. I get that question at least a couple of times a month. I always answer that question with another question:
“Why do you think you need to stretch?”
The most common response I get is “to prevent injuries”. We’re going to tackle that question in just a second but before we do, I want to talk about the real reason most runners think they need to stretch.
I remember playing soccer (or, more accurately, football) in gym class at school and for my local team. We had to do stretches as part of our warm-up for every practice and every game. I don’t ever remember questioning why we were doing it. It was just like raising your hand in class. Just something we all did.
It might have changed for youth sports now but back in the 90’s, you stretched before you played. Most of us grew up stretching before sport and the idea that stretching is needed became embedded in the culture of our generation.
That’s the real reason most runners stretch. They just do it because they always did and so did everyone around them.
That’s fine by me. If you stretch because it’s part of your cultural heritage, great. However, nobody says this when I ask them why they think they need to stretch. They usually say, “so I don’t get injured”.
Thankfully, the jury is pretty much in on this one. Research shows that static stretching isn’t going to help you prevent injuries. So if that’s the only reason you are stretching, you don’t need to bother.
Some runners stretch because they believe it improves performance. That’s not really the case either.
Stretching is helpful for performance in sports that require a lot of flexibility. Things like dancing or gymnastics. If you need to do the splits for your dance routine, you need that level of flexibility just to perform the movement. So you’ll probably need to stretch before your performances and every day as part of your training.
However, distance runners don’t need much flexibility to perform the movements of running. When you run your hamstrings, glutes, quads and calf muscles are pretty much never fully stretched out. They stay in their mid-range throughout the running gait cycle.
As long as you have enough flexibility to perform the basic movement of running, additional flexibility won’t benefit you in any way.
There is one situation in which I would recommend stretching for a runner. If you have a specific area that is stiff and lacks the range of movement to perform the running motion in a normal way. It would usually be an area that you’ve injured in the past.
A good example here would be my left ankle. I had a high ankle sprain playing soccer as a teenager. I didn’t get any rehab (I don’t know why) so it healed stiff. Now, if I do the knees-over-toes movement, my left ankle is about 30% stiffer than my right.
In this case, that stiffness doesn’t make me run differently. However, if it were a bit stiffer and I couldn’t get my knee past my toes at all, that would drastically affect my running biomechanics. In this situation, stretching before a run and as part of my regular routine would probably be warranted.
It’s important to note here, I’m talking about stiffness, not pain. My ankle doesn’t hurt at all, it just won’t move as much as the other one. The stretching would be to make it more flexible, that’s all.
If you have a painful area, let’s say a painful Achilles Tendon, stretching is not going to help it. Because the problem with the tendon is that it is painful, not that it is stiff. People often confuse these two things. Just because something is painful, doesn’t mean that it’s stiff and just because something is stiff, doesn’t mean that it’s painful.
Ok, but Do I Need to Stretch Before I Run?
So let’s recap. The most likely reason you think you need to stretch is that it has been culturally ingrained in you. If that’s a good enough reason for you, keep doing it!
The next most likely reason that you think you need to stretch is to prevent injuries. Stretching doesn’t prevent injuries. If that’s the only reason you’re stretching, feel free to stop.
You might think that stretching improves running performance by making you more flexible. Runners don’t need to be very flexible so becoming more flexible won’t improve your performance. If that’s why you’re stretching, you needn’t bother.
If you’re stretching a specific part of your body that has become too stiff to perform the running motion in a normal way, that’s a good reason to stretch.
Finally, if you’re just stretching because you enjoy it, keep doing it. The research is also pretty clear that stretching doesn’t do you any harm. If it’s just part of your running routine and you want to keep doing it. Go for it.
However, if you’re paranoid that you’re making yourself more vulnerable to injuries because you don’t stretch, relax.
Runners don’t need to stretch.
If you are having trouble with pain when you’re running and you were stretching it to try and fix it, it’s probably not going to work. You need a more comprehensive strategy than that. If you want some help, just click the link button below to book a free call with us.