Stretching: To Do Or Not To Do?

Single-Leg Hip Stretch - This move stretches the lower back and glutes. Using your abdominals and front thigh and hip muscles, move the exercising leg toward the shoulder. Once the leg is moved as far as it can go, place hands behind the knee and gently stretch past this range, but don't force it. Hold for a count of '1 steamboat'. Return leg to the start position for the next rep.

Although flexibility is one of the main pillars of fitness, research doesn’t appear to support the use of static stretching (i.e., holding a position slightly past your comfortable range of motion for up to 30 seconds) before a game or race. For instance, one study had subjects run two three-kilometer races, one after a 20-minute pre-run stretching routine and the other without stretching. After stretching, they started at a slower pace and felt a greater sense of effort for the first 800 meters – hardly desirable for a race! With this type of outcome, leading fitness journalists, like Alex Hutchinson, have concluded that stretching doesn’t really help you but, then again, it doesn’t hurt you either.

What is an athlete to do? While stretching may not help prepare for a game or race; for injury prevention, it’s a different story. I’ve done routines to work on my flexibility for the last 20 years. And over this time, I’ve been able to run consistently without having to take time off due to injury, or have to see a health professional (e.g., massage therapist) for treatment. While there are a number of factors that contribute to this consistency, working on my flexibility is certainly one of the factors.

These are some strategies related to stretching that I’ve found helpful over the years:

Instead of Static Stretching, Use Active Isolated Stretching Instead. When static stretching, muscles elongate, in some cases up to 1.6 times the original length. However,  if a muscle elongates too quickly or too far, it automatically recoils to keep itself from ripping. This protective compensation, called the stretch reflex or “myotatic reflex” kicks in after three seconds, according to experts! In comparison, Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) attempts to avoid the stretch reflex by holding each stretch for less than three seconds. In AIS you stretch the muscle but not the stretch reflex. You work quickly, gently stretching the muscle to the point that the stretch reflex doesn’t activate. As pictured above and below, a couple of my favorite AIS are the Single-Leg Hip Stretch and the Single-Leg Quad Stretch.

Single-Leg Quad Stretch - Lie on your side and place your lower hand to support the non-exercising leg, which is bent at a 90 degree angle. Reach with the top hand and grasp the shin, ankle, or forefoot of your upper leg. Move the upper exercising leg back as far as you can and hold for a count of '1 steamboat'. Return leg to the start position for the next rep.

Include Mobility Exercises Too. For building flexibility and injury prevention, l consider Mobility Exercises to be a “cousin” of stretching. To differentiate, stretching targets lengthening muscles, whereas, mobility aims to increase the range of motion. As shown below, two of my favorite mobility exercises are Donkey Kicks and Chest Stretch.

Donkey Kicks - With hands and knees in contact with ground, use your lower back and glute (gluteals) to move the exercising leg away from the ground as far as it can go. Return leg to the start position for the next rep.

Do Short Bursts of AIS and Mobility Exercises Throughout the Day. 1) I start the day with a morning warmup routine to get ready for a day of movement ahead. (This routine includes FOAM ROLLING as well.) I’ve found through the years that this routine doesn’t need to happen immediately before my morning run, in fact I do it about an hour before my run. 2) After a run, when the muscles are warm this is a good time to do static stretches (Touch those toes!). 3) When doing a lot of sitting, I’ll keep loose with a short burst (or MOVEMENT SNACK) of stretching. Unlike strength training where one might work up to 10 reps of an exercise, I’ve found 5 reps of an Active Isolated Stretch to be enough.

Chest Stretch - In standing position, lift both arms to shoulder height, keeping elbows locked. With muscles in the back of the shoulders, move arms straight back until they can go no further. Return arms to the start position for the next rep.

Thanks for reading!
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Other posts on stretching and mobility that readers may want to check out…
- For more on foam rolling… Foam Rolling for Runners
- For lower leg (achilles tendon) stretches… Summer Care for Runners
- I think of short bursts of stretching and mobility exercises to be movement snacks. Check out this movement snack… A Movement Snack for 2022
- For added hip mobility exercises… A Hip Mobility Routine for Runners
- Check out the Experiment of One Coaching 5K Training Plan located in the sidebar of the homepage. This 10-week training plan is designed to meet national physical fitness guidelines for moderate - vigorous exercise (150 minutes per week) while, at the same time, gradually increasing the amount of vigorous exercise being performed. In the future, other workouts and training resources will be added to the sidebar.
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Experiment of One Coaching covers topics ranging from running, strength training, health & wellness, sports nutrition to travel. I usually post once or twice a month.