Reader to Reader: To stretch or not to stretch?

How important is it to stretch? And when's the best time to do so? Here's what you thought


Posted: 2 July 2007
by Catherine Lee


Having already suffered the consequences of overdoing it too soon, this week’s questioner is desperate to avoid future injury by spending time warming up before – and cooling down after – every training run. Trouble is, conflicting opinions on when, how and why to stretch have left him more confused than ever. Can you help him out with some no-nonsense advice?

"I am new to running and am just waiting to recover from my knee pain (having overdone it early on). I have read some articles online about warming up and a lot of them seem to contradict each other on the best methods of warming up and down. Can anyone help me here?" john burthe 2

Your best answers

  • Muscles are like elastic bands
    Generally it's best to mobilise the joints to warm up so alternate knee lifts (swinging one leg back and forth, then the other), kicking alternate heels back to your bottom and jogging on the spot all do the trick. Don't bother with pre-run stretching - it reduces muscle power. Take flicking an elastic band as an example. A slack stretched one won't flick very far compared to a tauter band. That's because the taut band has the capacity to store more recoil energy (power). Muscles lose this recoil energy during the stretch process. Just start out slow jogging for the first mile to warm up and gradually pick up the pace. – Sciance
  • Look to the running greats for inspiration
    Stretching cold muscles is a sure route to injury. After all when did you last see a gazelle stretch before taking flight? – Fellrunner
  • It’s not all about the physical, there are psychological benefits too
    My regime is a gentle jog for four to five minutes to generate a bit of heat in the muscles, followed by leg stretches, then set off. It's probably all in the mind but I feel more confident having been through my regime. The 'cool down' is more or less the reverse, always finishing with a few stretches. – JN

  • There is no right or wrong answer
    The jury is out on the benefits of stretching. Having run competitively for 42 years I have experienced the full range of physiological theories put out by sports scientists and I am still just as confused as everyone else. I still static stretch when I have a tight area (lower back, calf, quads etc.) but otherwise have found that a slow jog building up over a mile or so of my run to my normal pace and a jog/walk warm-down at the end of my session to be perfectly adequate. The one thing that I have finally learnt to appreciate is rest between sessions. Whatever standard you’re at, rest days are really important and will prevent your muscles and tendons from becoming overloaded. – Ian Moffatt
  • Some swear by prevention rather than cure
    I religiously follow the stretching guide which I found here on RW, especially paying attention to the ITB stretches. Several of my friends who have been running for years warned me that they had done real damage by not stretching this muscle as it tightens up after running, and can pull your knee joint to one side causing pain and injury. When I first started running I didn’t stretch at all, and would quite often have a knee that was very painful the next day and "clicky". Since stretching though I haven't had a day with knee pain (touch wood and all...) – Julesy
  • Others adopt a more reactive approach
    I don't stretch anything that isn't telling me it needs stretching. Last year I had some ITB trouble and doing ITB-specific stretches two or three times a day for a few weeks sorted it out, but it would take more evidence of benefit than is currently available to persuade me to spend time stretching proactively to try to prevent injury. – Velociraptor
  • First and foremost, find out what suits you
    I’ve been running since January and don't claim to be an expert but what works for one won't necessarily work for another, it’s completely up to the individual. I go running with my mate and his warm-up/warm-down regime is completely different to mine. I like to do a series of leg stretches before a run whereas he prefers just a gentle jog. Warming down I do a lot of stretching whereas he likes a coffee and chill-out session. Horses for courses completely. – Matt Thomas 10
  • Stopping too suddenly can cause stiffness...
    I think that a warm-down is far more important than a warm-up - if you stop and then go back to the office and sit in the same position for the next three or four hours you will ultimately end up with very short hamstrings and calves. If you can make the time I would recommend doing some weekly flexibility stuff too - I am convinced that this lessens aches after running. – Colin Watts
  • ... so make the most of your post-exercise window
    My physio says that it is OK to do stretches up to 30 minutes after finishing exercise, which is great for me as I tend to be too tired and unsteady on my feet to do my stretches properly at first. I then tend to try to stay active for another hour or so, or at least wiggle my legs if I am stuck at a desk. I know these aren't proper stretches but I find them wonderful to prevent stiffening up the next day. I also do stretches the following day if stiff or when recovering from an injury. – SuperCaz
  • A little ice can work wonders
    For a cool-down after a training session, I find that icing aching legs and muscles really works. It feels like hell at first but the next day you won’t even feel like you have been out the day before. I know hot baths can really help get rid of those aches and pains but be careful as heat can help make muscles bleed. If you are feeling tight, ice first and wait a little while before taking a bath so the muscles have a chance to recover a little. – Matt Ford 3
  • Take a holistic look at your lifestyle
    Some of us need to stretch more than others after exercise because we sit on our bums all day long shortening the hamstrings and developing weak glutes. At least that's what my physio told me. If you're walking around all day instead, you might be better off. – Luna man
  • Age will have a role to play
    As I have got older, stretching after a run has become absolutely vital to avoid injury. I also stretch my calves, quads and Achilles on rest days (on the advice of my physio) and feel a lot more supple as a result. – Implosion
  • Never say never
    I have been running for seven years without stretching and had no problems until this year. On a physio's advice I now stretch for five minutes before and after a run and also 15 minutes on non-running days to strengthen the muscles. The physio said that my muscle flexibility was 'tragic' before but now I can even touch my toes for the first time since I left my teenage years! – Mr Physicist

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I am new to running. Having now got the right shoes I am just waiting to recover from my knee pain (over doing it to early on) and would like to ask if anyone has any advice, links, to good warm up/warm down programmes or where to find them. Some possible excersises to help strengthen knees would also be good.

I have read some articles online about warming up and a lot of them seem to contradict each other on the best methods of warming up and down. Can anyone help me here?

I am now paranoid about causing injury so I want to ensure I take all precautions and warm up and down effectively.

thanks
Posted: 20/06/2007 at 16:45

Dear John
In my experience the best warm up is a few leg stretches and a quick walk before you start running. As for warming down I find a nice cup of tea and a sit in the sun does wonders for me :-)

However I am new to this game - so please take my advice with a pinch of salt.

Glad to hear you got your shoes sorted.
regards
Ian
Posted: 20/06/2007 at 19:16

Thanks Ian, Looks like I have a collapsed arch on the left foot, hence the left knee pain. Gonna rest the knee a little longer, then start running again.

I'm liking your warm down style. Sounds like it might be contagious ;)

How long have you been running for now?
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 14:23

Generally it's best to mobilise the joints to warm up: so alternate knee lifts, swinging one leg back & forth then the other for hip mobility, kicking alternate heels back to bottom, jogging on the spot etc all do the trick.

Don't bother with pre-run stretching - it reduces muscle power and wastes time. Just start out slow jogging for the first mile to warm up and gradually pick up the pace.

Always do a cool down, don't just stop or you can feel ill. Walk around for a bit, maybe 5 mins, then when you're home stretch calves, hams, quads, hip flexors and lower back. Then I do the sitting quietly with a nice cuppa ;o)
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 14:37

Thanks for the info - appreciated
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 15:13

Don't stretch before you run. Stretching is for relaxing the muscles and you really don't want them to be relaxed if they're about to start working. I find that some walking, breaking into a gentle run is a good start for a training run. If I'm racing then my warm up will depend on the distance.
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 15:14

Just start out slow jogging for the first mile to warm up and gradually pick up the pace.

It's the picking up the pace bit that I have the problem with...
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 15:23

Mister W - Is really bad to stretch before a run?
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 15:40

MM, It's not bad as such, just pointless. Stretching is for flexibility enhancement - you don't want lax muscles to run, nice to have them afterwards which is when you should be stretching.

Take flicking an elastic band as an example, a slack stretched one won't flick very far compared to a more taut band. That's because the taut band has the capacity to store more recoil energy (power).

Stretched muscles lose this recoil energy during the stretch process. There is also not one scrap of evidence that pre-stretching reduces injury.
Posted: 21/06/2007 at 17:55

Excellent description, Siance, I'm going to use that in future :-)
Posted: 22/06/2007 at 08:17

Dear John
I am a newbie of 6 week
regards
Ian
Posted: 22/06/2007 at 08:34

Ian,

How are you finding running so far? What sort of stage are you at?
Posted: 22/06/2007 at 09:13

Thanks for your imput and advice everyone. Really great to hear all your opinions.
Posted: 22/06/2007 at 09:14

Thanks Mr W. Happy to share :o)
Posted: 22/06/2007 at 09:17

John,

I do not not warm up before running, the first 10 mins or so are my warmup. Unless racing then I warm up for shorter events but not for Marathon and longer.

I always stretch and warm down/walk for 10 minutes at the end, especially concentrating on calves, quads and hamstrings.
I also have a session once a week where I only do stretching/flexibility stuff for an hour.

Colin
Posted: 22/06/2007 at 16:35

Hi guys

Thought this question would make a good Reader to Reader so please do keep your advice, experience and suggestions coming...

Thanks

Catherine :o)
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 10:54

Hi,
Ive been running since January and have just set a P.B. of 24:10 for 5k and an hour for 10k. I don't claim to be an expert but what works for one won't necessarily work for another, its completely up to the individual.

I do runs with my mate Paul and his warm up/warm down regime is completely different to mine.

I like to do a series of leg stretches and warm ups before a run whereas he prefers a gentle jog just to warm up.

Warming down I do a lot of stretching whereas he likes a coffee and chill out session!

Horses for courses completely and we are both of similar ability and age as well.
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 12:37


JN
Hi John,
I agree with Matt that what works for one will not suit another.
My regime is a gentle jog for 4-5 minutes to generate a bit of heat in the muscles, followed by leg stretches, then set off. It's probably all in the mind but I feel more confident having been through my regime. The 'cool down' is more or less the reverse, always finishing with a few stretches before getting in the car to drive home. Hope you are soon fit and well.
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 12:50

All,

I am very grateful for all of your comments. I don't run with anyone at the moment and as a new starter all your information is very valuable to me. Thanks JN and Matt for your input, that has eased my mind some what. It may be psychological but I don't think I could just start jogging as a warm up through fear of injury. I think I may need a lot more of a gradual warm up to really get my muscles warm.

I would love to hear other peoples warm ups/warm dows too, its all very helpful and informative. Kepp them coming people
:-)
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 13:46

I find if I'm running in the morning it's always worth going through with a proper warm up, boring as it may be. Any other time of day doesn't tend to make much difference. But definitly worth warming down after your run, unfortunatly I can't find a way to get out of that one!
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 13:58

I also think that the the warm down is far more important than a warm up, you can just do a slow jog for 10 minutes.
If you stop and then go back to the office and sit in the same position for the next 3-4 hours you will ultimatley end up with very short hamstrings and calves.

Matt, this also applies to you mate and his coffee and chill out approach. In the long term this can result in problems.

I have always been a fan of flexibility and stretching, from before I started running. 4 yrs running, 23 yrs flexibility!

It's hard to regain once you have lost it.

Colin
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 14:08

Good point about working conditions Colin - some of us need to stretch more than others after exercise because we sit on our bums all day long shortening the hamstrings and developing weak glutes. At least that's what my physio has told me. If you're walking around all day instead (traffic wardens?), you might be better off.
Mind you, I've always wanted to be a traffic warden.
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 14:59

Hi John

My personal experience has led me to: Warm up - walk for a few minutes, jog 1st mile - approx 10 mins, gentle stretch for couple of minutes not risking getting cold again.

Main run session.

Warm down - walk for a few minutes and good stretch of at least 5 - 10 minutes before going home. May also stretch out a bit more at home after a shower.

Has worked well for me over the years.

ps - i would never seriously stretch before muscles are warm as can lead to injury hence a gentle jog first.. I might very gently stretch out prior to jog but be careful

Hilly1

Posted: 25/06/2007 at 15:17

John - welcome to the world of running! Sorry about your knee problems - getting the right shoes should help with that.

On warming up - Sciance is right (are you a coach too?) and is quoting the evidence about what is now believed to be optimal. Static stretching is so last millennium - as he explains it reduces the power output of muscles. Accessing full joint mobility (for you), some dynamic stretching (brief stretching while moving) and gently getting the heart rate up is what it's all about. Proper warming up is particularly important before a speed session or a race. Here's some additional exercises:

- gentle jog of 5-10 mins to get heart rate up a bit. Walking on tip-toe (dynamic flex for calves); skipping (co-ordination); walking hamstring stretches; walking pulling alternate knees to chest (for glutes); lunges (for hip flexors); alternate leg-swings for hips and if sprinting or hill-training, you must mobilise the shoulders to access full arm movement by doing arm circles forwards and backwards.

On long or steady runs, simply start each run slowly.

Cooling down is more important the faster you have been running as if you stop suddenly, blood pools in the legs and you can faint (as my daughter regularly did in cross country race finish-funnels). After a long run, walking in bare feet on grass is very pleasant. Then immerse lower legs (at least in water as cold as you can find (I have a plasic bin in the garden for this purpose).

Only hold stretches for 6-10 seconds after a run session as the muscles are inflamed and you risk muscle damage. You are only trying to restore them to your normal length.

There is no evidence that flexible runners are faster - in fact the reverse is generally the case. But if you want to improve flexibility do longer stretches on a separate occasion.


Hope helpful.

Posted: 25/06/2007 at 16:21

Awesome, thanks for your advice. I appreciate it, as I am sure everyone else does too
Posted: 25/06/2007 at 16:55

Yep, another coach popping in to say Siance is absolutely right.
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 08:28

Hi John,

As I have got older (nearly 40), stretching after a run has become absolutely vital to avoid injury.

I also stretch calves, quads and achilles on rest days on advice of physio and feel a lot more supple as a result.

Also pay attention to your hydration before and after running, this is another essential as one gets older.


Posted: 26/06/2007 at 09:56

thanks Implosion
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 11:38

Hi John,

I'm even older (50 next year so I don't expect to break any records) and also treat the early part of a longer run as a warm up. If it's a 5k, then I'll have a little jog first. The warm-down afterwards is usually just a walk combined with calf and ankle stretches. Great advice from Implosion about hydration - I'm almost paranoid about taking enough liquid on board both before and after running. Don't take on too much before though - better to drink as you go!
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 12:42

I have been running for 7 years without stretching and had no problems until this year. Big knee problems and on a physio's advice I stretch for 5 mins before and after a run and also 15 minutes on non running days to strengthen the muscles. Mainly calves and quads. The physio said that my muscle flexibility was 'tragic' before but now I can even touch my toes for the first time since I left my teenage years!
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 13:08

Very interesting stuff. thanks for your comments
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 13:13

My runs tend to be longer so I use the first mile or so to warm up at a slower pace - interestingly, I warm up sufficiently after 1.2 miles meaning the hat and gloves (in winter) go off at roughly the same place!

Warm down consists of a gentle walk with a few slow running sections. A good stretch afterwards, followed by a glass of milk and toast on peanut butter - after race fuel is essential!
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 19:01

Hi John

I start running 7 weeks ago. Like you I also read a lot about training. I too find some advice a bit confusing.
After some thoughts I decided that the ones about not stretching before the run,and just warm up properly, sound logical. That is what I do. I always wind down and then do a few good stretches. I have not had any ache and pain. I have a old injury in one ankle and so far I had no problem from it. Something muist be working.
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 20:11

I don't stretch anything that isn't telling me it needs stretching. Last year I had some ITB trouble and doing ITB-specific stretches two or three times a day for a few weeks sorted it out, but it would take more evidence of benefit than is currently available to persuade me to spend time stretching proactively to try to prevent injury.
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 20:18

I do get quite stiff, and aching, if I don't stretch. May be it's my age.
Posted: 26/06/2007 at 22:07

It seems the over all message I am getting is, have a good warm up with light exercise to get the blood pumping, then do your running. Warm down should be walking around (not stopping straight away) followed by a good session of stretching.

Thanks for all your posts. Most helpful :)

Any more routines?
Posted: 27/06/2007 at 09:37

Well, if you can make the time I would recommend doing some weekly flexibility stuff in any case. Not for a warm up but I am convinced that this does lessen aches/stiffness from running.
As SC has said There is no evidence that flexible runners are faster but it's not all about speed. Not hobbling about with stiff legs the day(s) afterwards make it worth it, I would have said.

Colin
Posted: 27/06/2007 at 09:59

Colin, I took your comments on board and I have been thinking about making the time to do this. I am quite un-flexible and I am not to bothered about speed, I am doing this for fitness and enjoyment. I definately FEEL I should be more flexible.

Thanks
Posted: 27/06/2007 at 10:06

John,
In that case look into Pilates/Yoga type of classes. If this will be something you have not done before it is important that you get guidance when you start to ensure that you are doing the exercises correctly.
It is possible to injure yourself if you do then incorrectly.

I do a weekly class called Body Balance, which is a combination of yoga, pilates and tai chi, and generally there are few blokes there but much more importantly you get to lie down for a 'relax' session at the end. I find it hard not to go to sleep!


Colin

Posted: 27/06/2007 at 10:23

I have done yoga before but not for a long time. I know a yoga teacher so I should get in touch :)
Your Body Balance classes sound interesting, Pilates and Tai chi I have never experienced.
Posted: 27/06/2007 at 10:35

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