Why I Do Not Stretch Before Running By NakedSoleNate Before I go into my diatribe against pre-run stretching, it will be helpful to understand some major reasons and purposes of a stretching routine. Many fitness and health-care professionals recognize at least five reasons stretching is advisable as part of any wellness program. Anyone can find these reasons with a quick web-search. I will focus on two. The first reason you want to incorporate stretching into your routine is that it actually helps to build strength, not just flexibility. Flexibility (range of motion) combined with greater muscular strength, aides in an increase in performance and a decrease of injury. The second reason is that stretching increases circulation, allowing the natural healing process of the body to become more efficient. Because, let’s face it, as barefoot runners—athletes who like to push the envelope of convention and the limits of our physical capacities—we need all the efficient healing we can get. Physiologically, stretching is not that different from a weight training regimen. The process of building “bulking muscles” entails breaking down muscle fiber and then resting to allow that muscle fiber to re-build, increasing that muscle’s bulk in the process. In this very way, stretching lengthens the muscles by creating those micro-tears that are repaired during rest. Stretching does not lengthen tendons and ligaments, in fact, tendons and ligaments have very little elasticity, and this is why they can tear easily. Stretching lengthens the muscle, and this decreases the load burden on the tendons and ligaments. Stretching also releases toxins in the muscle group that is being worked. Lactic acid, that wonderful substance that causes muscle soreness, is a prime example of a toxin that can be released via a stretching routine. So, why shouldn’t you stretch before going out for a run? First of all, stretching of any kind should not be done when the body is “cold.” You will be much more effective and less likely to hurt yourself if your stretching happens when the muscles of your body are warm. Secondly, if you do “warm up” and stretch correctly, you are engaging your muscles in a way that is incongruous with the way your muscles function during a run. This very well may make your run less effective. Your muscles will actually be weaker after a proper stretching routine, until they have time to rest and rebuild. There is anecdotal and experiential evidence that supports the possibility of an increase of injury in working out/running post stretching. This is due, once again, to the dichotomy between the action of stretching a muscle and the function of muscle contraction. Muscle contraction is the movement of action, as in running, jumping, dancing, etc. For me, when I am in a cycle of increasing my flexibility, I notice a large difference in my strength capacity. I know from experience however, that once I recover and settle into the new “baseline,” my strength returns and is enhanced. I will then work on increasing strength and will notice a slight decline in my flexibility; once again, this is temporary. One’s optimum flexibility to strength ratio will depend on many factors, including genetics, goals, and activities. A general rule of thumb is that you want to maintain as much range of motion as possible without compromising the effectiveness of your muscular function. The converse is true as well; you want to maintain your muscular strength, without compromising your flexibility. So, what, if anything should one do before a run? One should warm up. Warming up is best done by performing the activity to follow, but to a lesser degree. So walk, or run slowly, before jumping into your actual “run.” Give the body a chance to adjust to the activity that you want it to do. Warming up is not stretching; it is preparing the body for the task at hand by performing similar physical actions. Doing 30 jumping jacks or 20 lunging steps is more than adequate to get the blood flowing into the muscles and to get the heart and lungs ready for work. I personally, just start running. That might not work for some of you. If you find that your joints are stiff, taking some time for rotations at those joints is a good idea. Save the actual stretching for after your run, when your muscles are warm, fatigued, and ready to rest. You will make greater gains in your flexibility, release toxins, aide in the recovery and healing of your body, and create a general sense of refreshment after your workout. Proper stretching techniques are also important. Improper techniques will lead to ineffectiveness at best, injury at worst. The most common mistake people make in stretching is that they do not hold the stretch long enough. Fifteen seconds is the minimum any stretch should be held. I actually advocate spending much more time in a stretch, even as much as five minutes. Two minutes, however, is adequate for significant release. Another mistake made in either pre or post-workout stretching, is the prevalence of ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretching is a type of stretching where one is “bouncing.” This is highly detrimental to the muscle fibers. Proper stretching technique is slow and methodical. Whatever stretch you are doing, it should start with a mild engagement, and it should be comfortable. Once you no longer feel the “stretch,” then it’s time to sink deeper into that stretch learning to release and relax into the position. Keeping this sequence up to that two minute time frame will enable you to experience a level of release many people miss out on. A very helpful technique to utilize is the observation and engagement of your breath. In a stretch, think of lengthening the body, or expanding the place where you feel tight, as you inhale. Then, as you exhale, allow yourself to “fall” into that length or expansion. One word of caution...if you pull a muscle, either running or stretching, the worst thing you can do for it is to try to “stretch” it out. A pulled muscle by definition has been over stretched. The remedy to rehab a pull is to work strength exercises to tighten it back up. Most importantly, listen to your own body. Avoid over-stretching just as much as over-training. You have all the answers you need inside yourself to be happy, healthy, strong, and flexible. If you currently stretch before you run, if it’s a meaningful part of your routine, it makes you feel better, and you are not experiencing any ill effects, there is no reason to change. However, if you’ve been doing this because you thought you were supposed to, take some time to evaluate your experience. Experiment and find what works for you. Your body is your unique laboratory, and you are the chief scientist. By NakedSoleNate -Nathaniel Wolfe, B.A., C.Y.T., R.Y.T. Black Belt Instructor in the Art of Xin Pai Bai Long Chaun Fa (lit. New Philosophy of the White Dragon Fist Method), Owner and Teacher of the Carlisle Hatha Yoga Center, Carlisle, PA.