The January 2012 issue of Outside magazine took ten of the biggest fitness myths to the mats. One of them had to do with stretching's effect on running parformance. FSU researchers asked ten male athletes to stretch for 16 minutes, then run for an hour on a treadmill. In a later session, the same crew sat quietly for 16 minutes, then hit the treadmill for the same duration. Without the pre-run stretch, the men covered more distance while expending less energy.
So, I don't feel quite so bad about my inability to stretch. At least I can run.
Ah, you say, but if you did stretch you probably would not have to deal with the nagging little injuries you've had in the past year. Not so fast, my little friend. In several large-scale studies of athletes and military recruits, static stretching did not reduce the incidence of common overuse injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy (one of the issues with which I deal) and knee pain.
In my humble opinion, stretching is a personal matter. I'm not going to tell someone they shouldn't stretch if they feel it helps. When specific muscles are tight or I have run a lot of mileage, I will do a little bit of stretching, usually the calf muscles (which also impacts the achilles’ tendon), the iliotibial band, & the hamstrings, since these are the muscles which become most inflexible because we run.
One thing you will not see me do is throw my leg over the back of a chair, or do what I see most recreational runners do, what I like to call "flamingo imitations." You've seen the person. They're the one who take their foot and pull it directly behind them up to their backside. I'm not certain whether they're working on their knee flexibility or their quadriceps muscle. Neither one really seems all that essential to run performance.
All three muscle group stretches can be done by having a flat surface, something with which to lean against, and a bench or chair. A fifteen-minute warm-up, consisting of a jog and some stretching - at the most - and on to the run.
The iliotibial (IT) band stretch is done by crossing one leg behind the other 6-9 inches, then leaning toward the rear leg. Again, hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds without bounce, then switch legs.
The hamstrings can be stretched by placing the leg up on a bench or support between knee & waist height (there are variations which keep both feet on the ground). Bend slowly forward at the waist until the stretch is felt, hold for 30 to 60 seconds, then switch legs.
Some things you don't want to do:
Never try to stretch a muscle that has not been warmed up. A few minutes of easy jogging (the same amount of time it takes to run about a mile) will raise a muscle’s temperature enough to make it pliable.
Never bounce during a stretch. Just stretch as far as the muscle will allow; stay relaxed & breathe. You don’t get awards for being the most flexible at the race.
Never over-stretch. You really can stretch too much & leave your joints susceptible to injury.
If you really feel the need to do it, stretching does not need to look like a return to dance classes of our youth. As long as you do it in a manner which aligns with your day-to-day functionality you probably won't need to worry about loss of muscle strength, or hurting your joints.