Runners need active stretching

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Author: Michael Yessis
Date: Winter 2005
From: AMAA Journal(Vol. 18, Issue 2)
Publisher: American Running & Fitness Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,184 words

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Runners are advised to do static stretches before, after, and often during the run. This includes common stretches such as the standing toe touch, seated toe touch, heel to buttocks, quadriceps stretch, standing wall stretch for the calves, and elbow behind the head shoulder stretch. Many reasons are given for such stretching, which include:

1. An increase in the range of motion (ROM),

2. Reduction in the incidence of injury,

3. Delay in the onset of muscular fatigue, and

4. Prevention and alleviation of muscle soreness after exercise.

These are valid outcomes but at the same time we should remember that inappropriate stretching can be detrimental to joint integrity and stability. For example, tendons and ligaments can be permanently deformed or damaged by overzealous or prolonged stretching that decreases joint stability. In addition, overstretching of the lumbar spine can damage nerves, introvertebrial discs, and blood vessels, sometimes with serious consequences. This applies especially to passive spinal stretching in the hands of amateurs as well as forceful attempts to assume certain yoga postures which involve spinal hyperflexion, hyperextension, and rotation.

In static stretching, you hold the end range of motion for anywhere from 30 to 60 seconds. For the stretching to be "successful" you must concentrate on relaxing the muscles so that you can keep increasing the ROM. Many runners take this advice to heart and stretch as much as possible not only before running but also during the day. As a result they develop great flexibility. But does it make them better runners? No. Studies done in the former Soviet Union have shown that static stretching has no correlation to athletic performance. In my practice I have seen many runners who did an extensive amount of static stretching who were also very prone to injury. Rather than preventing injury, it appears that the overstretching creates injuries.

Active stretching, however, has a very high correlation to athletic performance. If we look more closely at static and active stretching, it will be possible to better understand why this is so. For example, static stretching normally refers to flexibility exercises that use the weight of the body or its limbs to load the soft tissues. Rarely is this term applied to stretches which are forcibly produced by voluntary muscular contractions. Active stretching, as can by typified by the "cat stretch," is employed successfully in the cat kingdom, by most humans waking in the morning, and by bodybuilders in their posing routines.

Following are some definitions that are fairly well accepted in the fitness and sports worlds.

Static Stretching. In free static stretching there is no external loading with muscle relaxation, or with isometric muscle contraction (sometimes called active static stretching). Free static stretching is usually gravity-assisted, as in the standing toe touch.

Passive Stretching. In passive stretching there is external loading on relaxed or isometrically contracted muscles. This form of stretching is usually done partner- or apparatus-assisted.

Dynamic Stretching. The most common form of this stretching type is ballistic stretching, which imposes passive momentum to increase ROM...

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