Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Static stretching—or long-hold stretching such as toe touching—has acquired a bad name in recent years. Studies have demonstrated that performing static stretches before intense exercise reduces performance in the subsequent exercise bout. For example, people can’t jump as high after static stretching as they can otherwise.
The reason is that static stretching activates a protective neuromuscular reflex that tries to prevent muscles from being overstretched. Consequently, the muscles become inhibited by the brain after static stretching and cannot contract as forcefully and efficiently as normal.
Jumping is not the only form of exercise in which performance suffers after static stretching. Research has shown that running performance suffers too. It may do so for a different reason, though. In running, efficiency depends on stiffness in the leg as the foot makes contact with the ground. Key muscles and joints must be tight enough to absorb energy from the ground and use it to spring forward. Static stretching has been shown to reduce leg stiffness during running and thereby spoil running economy.
However, the existing studies on the effects of static stretching on subsequent endurance running performance have not involved trained runners. Sometimes things that are true of non-runners who are asked to run for a study are not also true of trained runners. With this thought in mind, researchers at Florida State University recently tested the effects of static stretching prior to a one-hour treadmill running test in 12 trained female distance runners.
The subjects were required to run 30 minutes at a moderate intensity and immediately thereafter run a 30-minute time trial, on two separate occasions. One run was preceded by a session of static stretching and the other by quiet sitting. In both runs, researchers measured running economy during the first 30 minutes and distance covered in the second 30 minutes. The researchers found that static stretching yielded an acute increase in flexibility. However, running economy and performance measurements were identical in the two runs. The authors of the study therefore concluded that static stretching had no effect on running economy or performance in trained distance runners.
That’s nice, but most coaches and conditioning experts believe that dynamic mobility movements such as walking lunges, high knees, and butt kicks are preferable to static stretching immediately prior to running. If you feel you need to stretch passively before a workout or race, be sure to do some dynamic stretching afterward. Whether static stretching is ultimately determined to negatively affect or neutrally affect subsequent running performance, dynamic mobility drills actually enhance it.[sig:MattFitzgerald]
Check out Matt’s latest book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.