More News & Questions on Stretching


Stretching–and whether or not to do it–is one of the most debated issues in health and fitness.  What’s the final verdict?  (I’ve given my opinions a few times already here, here, and here.)  Does Stretching Before Running Prevent Injuries comes from the New York Times and it’s the latest comment on the issue.  The article discusses a study from USA Track & Field that involved about 3000 runners over the course of three months.  These subjects were split into two groups: one group followed a pre-run stretching routine, the other group did not stretch.  (From the description, the stretching group engaged in static isolated stretching, or what many of us would recognize as stretching: bend over and stretch the hamstrings for 20-30 seconds for example.)  Both groups followed the same running program.  The result?  Both groups experienced the same injury rate.  Thus, pre-run static stretching does not appear to help guard against injuries.  There is an exception though.

The study states:

“If runners who normally stretch prior to running were assigned to stretch, they had a low risk of injury but if they were assigned not to stretch, the injury risk was double those who kept stretching. It’s this result that most startlingly exhibits why people consider stretching to prevent injury. This study shows that those who are comfortable with their pre-run stretching routine should maintain it. They risk injury if they discontinue their pre-run stretching. For runners comfortable without pre-run stretching, they don’t necessarily improve their injury protection by starting a pre-run stretching routine.”

As I see it, the broad point to take from this observation is that any changes to your program should be undertaken slowly.  That goes for adding speed work, hill work, more mileage or engaging in barefoot running.  Sudden dramatic changes may leave you sidelined.

A Final Bit on Stretching: Dynamic Flexibility Demo


Here are three key dynamic stretch processes that you can (and I think you should) incorporate into your exercise regimen.  I suggest you use these movements at the start of your workout, be it a gym workout or a ride, run, swim–whatever.  It may be a good idea to do these movements at the end of the workout too.  I’ll post more dynamic stretches later.


A Little Bit on Stretching: Part II


So where are we?  We’ve covered the different flavors of stretching.  I now need to go back to something I said in Part I: No human movement is possible without stretching.  This is going to get a little more complicated before it gets simple–but I promise to give you information that you can actually use outside the game of Jeopordy!

Look at the stride--the STRIDE!--not the filthy habit.

Look at the stride--the STRIDE!--not the filthy habit. Photo by Ed Yourdon / CC BY-SA 2.0

Each time we move, we use energy stored in stretched muscles to drive our limb into movement.  When I take a step forward for instance, I hit the outer part of my heel and it rolls inward (calcaneal eversion).  The arch of my foot pronates a bit, and it pulls my calf muscles (soleus, gastrocnemius, posterior tibialis, among others) inward which takes my lower leg (tibia) inward into internal rotation.   At the same time, my body is moving forward over my ankle which creates dorsiflexion.   The tibial internal rotation also causes my knee to flex and internally rotate.   Once the knee moves in, it pulls on the IT band which is attached to my glute complex and now my glutes lengthen both forward and inward and my hip flexes–and if my hip is functioning properly it will move sideways into adduction in the direction of this leg that just took a forward stride.  So all these muscles have worked and stretched to keep my foot and leg from collapsing into the earth.  Now these muscles have all been turned on and with the energy stored inside them like stretched rubber bands they will propel me forward into my next stride.

Without going into every single action, the muscles and limbs of the opposite leg are contracting and creating extension, external rotation and abduction (though the adductors are stretching and slowing external rotation of the femur) at the hip, extension and external rotation at the knee, and plantarflexion and external rotation at the calf and ankle, and supination at the foot.

WOW!!!  Are you kidding me!!  What a lot of stuff!!  And that’s the story from just from the waist down!  All that and this lady can still manage to smoke a cigarette.  Did you notice how many muscles were stretched in this process, and in what directions?  Parts were moving forward, back, inward, outward and sideways.  As Gary Gray terms it, this is 3-D loading to exploding.

In all seriousness, this sequence of events must happen in order for our bodies to efficiently produce force and absorb shock.  Each stretch of each muscle in turn activates muscles up the line.  If this process is inhibited (could be due to injury, sitting too much, doing the same thing over and over and over, or who-knows-what) then we tend to get knee pain, back pain even shoulder or neck pain.

These movements aren’t just important for walking and running.  Proper movement in all three dimensions is vital for cyclists, skiers, dancers, even swimmers–even though their movement patterns are different from walkers and runners.

In Part III I’ll build on this whole process and show you an effective way to mobilize some important regions of the body via dynamic stretching.

A Little Bit on Stretching: Part I

Artwork for the cover of Fantastic Four vol. 3, #52 (Apr, 2002). Art by Mike Wieringo.

Artwork for the cover of Fantastic Four vol. 3, #52 (Apr, 2002). Art by Mike Wieringo.

I’m all over the place here!  I’m tremendously excited over some new concepts that I’ve been learning; concepts concerning human movement and how we function.  A lot of it has to do with stretching but not necessarily the type you automatically think of (more on that in a little bit.)  My difficulty is in how to write about all this without putting out a some sort of treatise. Maybe I’ll make it more than one part…  Here’s the start.

A recent Washington Post MisFit column tackles the issue of stretching.  Is it beneficial or is one of those things that we do just because we’ve always done it?  What’s the evidence that there is any benefit to doing it?

I’ll tell you that I’ve done just about a 360 and then a 180 back the other way on stretching.  Like most people I was taught that stretching was important so I did it but I didn’t really understand it.  Then, several years ago I was persuaded to change my view.   I became convinced that dedicated (static) stretching was not effective and not safe.  Now I will tell you without hesitation that stretching absolutely must be done–in fact no human movement is possible without it! Remember that fact because it’s enormously important, and I’ll discuss it more later.

First, let’s figure out what stretching is.  Most people have an idea what it looks like to stretch but most likely there are other methods that might not come to mind immediately.  So let’s look at what might qualify as “stretching.”

  • Static stretching: This is probably what first comes to mind when you think stretching.  This involves moving a limb into a position to the point where a slight burning is felt in the muscle and the position is held for anywhere from several seconds to a minute or so.  Static stretching addresses passive flexibility.
  • Dynamic stretching: This is stretching with movement.  Maybe the best examples of dynamic stretching are found in the animal kingdom.  Ever see a cat or dog wake up from a nap?  Essentially, dynamic stretching involves moving limbs or the trunk through its available range of motion.  You often see athletes do this prior to a game.  Examples include kicking the legs, swinging the arms, twisting the torso, lunging and other such movements.  Dynamic stretching often involves swinging an implement such as a golf club, tennis racquet, or baseball bat.  Dynamic stretching addresses active flexibility.
  • PNF Stretching –  Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation: I won’t go into much detail on PNF as there’s a lot to it and I’m not terribly well versed on the topic.

The popular perception of (static) stretching says it’ll reduce likelihood of injury, increase range of motion, decrease muscle soreness.  Is any of this true?  Well, the evidence is not entirely clear.  There’s very little evidence that static stretching prior to exercise or competition decreases injury.  In fact it very likely contributes to injury.  Why?  I won’t go into every single physiological detail of stretching here but I’ll try to explain the big ideas as best I can.

Static stretching actually weakens the ability of a muscle to contract.  Though you may gain range of motion (ROM) from static stretching it also results in a less-active muscle and thus a less stable joint or joints which that muscle crosses.  This phenomenon has been shown by testing athletes strength and/or jumping ability pre- and post-stretch.  So if you stretch statically prior to your soccer or softball game what you’ve done is create weaker muscles and less stable joints.  That’s not what you want.  Dynamic stretching is safer and more pertinent to real-life situations.

Dynamic stretching is now generally recognized as an appropriate activity prior to a workout or athletic even, as research (see ch. 3 of Siff’s Supertraining) has shown that active flexibility is more closely correlated to sporting proficiency than is passive flexibility.  In this way, you wake up the nervous system and prepare the body for action.  A dynamic stretch routine should include movements that you will perform in the workout or game.  Examples include body weight squats, various lunges, twisting the torso and swinging and reaching the arms in various directions.

How’s that for part I?