Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Stretching Debate

Jannine Myers

A few years ago I attended a conference hosted by former US Olympic marathon runner, Jeff Galloway, and one of the questions he was asked by an attendee, was if he considered pre-run stretching a necessary component of training. I was surprised to hear him say that he didn't think stretching was in any way beneficial as part of the warm-up routine. I have never been one to stretch myself (simply because I'm too lazy), but I had always been led to believe that stretching before a run would help to reduce injury as well as potentially improve performance.

Fast-forward another year or so, and once again, the topic of pre-workout stretching was brought to my attention. This time it came about because I found myself sitting in the office of my family practitioner complaining of recurring pain in my right calf muscle. The doctor who consulted me was a former Reconnaissance Marine, and besides the grim diagnosis he gave me, he also insisted that his ability to stay injury-free throughout his entire Marine Corps career, was most likely due to the fact that he religiously stretched before every workout.

So what to believe? Like so many other training recommendations, the idea of stretching prior to exercising is very much open to debate. But I'm willing to bet many of you lean towards, or are already firmly grounded in the "must stretch" camp. If that's you, then please read on and consider the results of a recent study which was highlighted by New York Times writer, Gretchen Reynolds, in her book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live longer:

For a study published in late 2010, scientists at the Florida State University, in Tallahasse, recruited ten competitive male collegiate athletes and asked them not to stretch during their warm-ups......The researchers brought the volunteers into the university's exercise physiology laboratory for a series of fitness tests, including measurements of their flexibility, then had them return for two additional sessions. During both, the men ran on a treadmill for an hour. In one session, they prepared for the run by simply sitting quietly for sixteen minutes. In the other, they stretched first, following a scripted sixteen-minute static-stretching routine. Static stretching involves stretching a muscle to its maximum length and holding it for twenty or thirty seconds. After stretching, the men felt more flexible.
But their performance declined, significantly. During the hour-long run, they covered less distance than when they had just sat quietly. They also consumed more calories and oxygen during the run, suggesting that their strides had become less economical, that the running was physiologically harder.

In one of her NY Times articles (October 31, 2008), Reynolds also cited Duane Knudson, Ph.D., currently a professor of biomechanics at Texas State University, but then a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico. In response to his observation of athletes warming up on campus, Knudsen said, " They're stretching, they're touching their's discouraging." Many of the athletes are still holding on to old-school presumptions that stretching routines prepare the muscles for a workout. But, Knudsen claims, it actually weakens them.

Nope, I'm not nearly as flexible as this granny, but would it do me any good anyway?

In another experiment, according to Reynolds, elite collegiate distance runners were measured for flexibility and not surprisingly, none were very supple (runners are generally not very flexible). What was surprising however, was that when the runners' flexibility scores were compared to their best 10k road race times, the fastest were those who had the tightest and least flexible muscles. The study concluded that the faster runners (those with the tightest hamstrings), had the best running economy. Reynolds explains:

Probably, the researchers concluded, tighter leg muscles allow " for greater elastic energy storage and use"  during each stride. Think of a rubber band. If it's overstretched and limp, it doesn't snap back when pullled and released. So, too, with your hamstrings; if they're loose, they don't efficiently lengthen, shorten, and snap back into place with each stride.

Furthermore, stretching prior to exercise may not reduce the risk of injury.

In the largest study to date of everyday athletes who stretched, almost fourteen hundred recreational runners aged thirteen to sixty-plus were assigned randomly to two groups. The first group did not stretch before their runs, while otherwise maintaining their normal workout and warm-up regimens. The second group did stretch. Both groups followed their routines for three months. At the end of that time, quite a few of the runners had missed training days due to injury, a predictable result, since running is one of the most injury-plagued sports on the planet. But there was no difference in the final pain tally between the two groups. The same percentage of those who stretched injured themselves as those who didn't.

Final remarks: I did not write this post with the intent of convincing you to give up your stretching routine, as quite honestly I have no idea how valid the conclusions of any of these studies are. And I will probably never find out, at least with regards to my own performance, because I'm pretty sure I'll continue to favor my lazy tendency to skip any type of pre-run stretching. But I do like to keep an open mind about all things that I read, and it's for that reason alone that I shared these findings with you, since I'm sure many of you also enjoy reading about things which go against the grain of typically accepted thinking.

Also, please keep in mind that none of the studies referred to above, suggest that stretching should play NO part in an athlete's overall training regimen. They only suggest that stretching BEFORE a workout may actually be counter-productive; that's not to say however that stretching should not be done at other times.

I'll leave you to come to your own conclusions!

No comments:

Post a Comment