It is amazing just how easily the media can grab ahold of a single study and overemphasize it’s topic to a point of mass misunderstanding. Stretching is one of those topics. There was a study done back in the early 1980s that looked at decreasing injuries. The problem with it was that it looked at nearly 20 different interventions for injury prevention including: stretching, gear, warm-up, field surface, etc. The good thing was that injuries decreased by quite a bit; the bad thing was that the researchers decided to ignore most of the study and attribute the improvements all to stretching. The media got ahold of this and stretching has been overemphasized since then.
Am I saying that stretching is bad? No. Is stretching important for injury prevention? Yes. Should you be stretching as much as you think? Maybe. The tricky thing with stretching is that you need to play a fine line between too much range of motion and not enough. There are two sides of the same coin that you need to pay attention to. There are advantages and disadvantages of being tight, as well as advantages and disadvantages of being flexible.
I feel like I hear about the detriments of being too tight everywhere. Most of those detriments stem from detriments in your running mechanics. Being tight starts affecting your mechanics and thus moves some of the stress to other tissues. You have a tight calf… here comes plantar fasciitis or achilles tendinopathy. The other aspect of your mechanics changing due to tightness is you tend to become less efficient mechanically. Your hip gets too tight and you can’t drive your knee up… it gets harder to extend your stride. So like we all think, stretching can be a very important piece of the puzzle.
But what most people don’t know is there is also detriment to being too flexible. Think about how a fast sprinter looks, everything is so tight on them that they kind of bounce. Their being so tight is part of what makes them so fast. When their muscles contract, their tendons are so tight that there’s no lag and they get the force transferred right away. If they were too flexible, there would be some force lost between the muscle contracting and the limb being pulled. So as you age and your muscles get tighter, your body is actually doing you a favor and just making you more efficient.
The takeaway here is stretch to find a happy medium or a “functional” level of flexibility. Different people need different levels of flexibility based on what they’re doing. Just because a gymnast needs to be able to put their foot over their head, doesn’t mean you need to as a runner. Rightly so, a steeplechaser has different flexibility needs than a 10k runner. Where as a steeplechaser needs a little more hip mobility for the hurdles, the 10k runner could afford to be a little tighter.
This post is more designed to talk about the theory of stretching. I plan to do a follow up post going into some of the practical ideas of when to stretch, how to stretch, etc. Like always, I enjoy to hear your feedback and want to know what you like, don’t like, what you want to hear in future blog posts.