Reader to Reader: To stretch or not to stretch?


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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