As a runner, I am always looking for “the answers.” I want to know how to be faster and stronger while avoiding injury. One of the most popular discussions that help tie all these questions together is the one regarding static versus dynamic stretching. Both forms of stretching offer advantages for runners, but it’s important to understand when to use the appropriate form of stretching. Understanding this and implementing the concepts can create real training and performance advantages for every runner.
In order to understanding which type of stretch is most beneficial, we must first understand the difference between the two types. Dynamic stretches are controlled movement patterns that allow the body to mimic athletic and sport movements while creating a stretch of targeted muscle groups. These patterns allow for short durations of stretch followed by an immediate release of the stretch and occasionally a quick contraction of the same muscle group. The idea behind dynamic stretching is to prepare the muscles for whatever activity they are about to perform. This is achieved by involving the specific muscle groups, as well as “recruiting” the central nervous system, to prepare them for the demands of running or any other sport activity.
A dynamic stretching routine will help prepare your body for the run by allowing you to achieve better speed, power, agility, and endurance. Over the past decade research has shown measurable advantages and immediate results in athletic performance as a result of using dynamic stretching strategies.
Static stretching involves moving the body into a position in which a specific muscle group is held beyond its normal elastic range of motion for 20 seconds or more. The desired goal is to improve the muscle’s elasticity and increase the range of motion. Static stretching also involves the central nervous system but in a completely different manner than with dynamic stretching. With a sustained hold, the muscle fibers become “desensitized” and are able to go into a state of relaxation. This in turn can measurably decrease balance and reaction/movement time.
When to use each type of stretching
Typically, dynamic stretching should be used before running. A dynamic stretching routine will help prepare your body for the run by allowing you to achieve better speed, power, agility, and endurance. Over the past decade research has shown measurable advantages and immediate results in athletic performance as a result of using dynamic stretching strategies. Research has also demonstrated the opposite effect associated with the practice of static stretching prior to athletic activity. The current research demonstrates that muscle strength can be acutely reduced by up to 9% for 60 minutes after the stretch is performed, muscle contraction speed is reduced by 8%, and the rate of force development is reduced by 5%. This all translates to inhibited performance. So it makes sense to use dynamic stretching principles as part of your pre-run warm-up and wait to use the static stretching principles until after the run.
Making the right choice to avoid injury
In regard to injury prevention, the practice of dynamic stretching as your pre-run choice and static as your post-run choice also makes sense based upon an understanding of the principles of neuromuscular performance and training. The dynamic stretching concepts are hypothesized to help improve coordination, positional joint control, help enhance joint stability, and improve protective joint reflexes. This response can ultimately prevent numerous lower limb injuries. With the same thoughts and understanding in mind, the runner should avoid static stretching prior to running having now learned the negative impacts on muscular strength and force production. A decrease in the muscle’s performance would limit the athlete’s joint stability and protective responses. However, since these performance responses are rather short in duration, it is appropriate to use the static stretch after running to improve muscular flexibility and available range of motion.
Having a basic understanding of the various principles of athletic training, physical therapy, and sports performance training are imperative to making smart choices before, during, and after a run. By making these choices in our stretching technique, it can allow us to be faster, stronger, run farther, jump higher, and keep us running for years to come.
Cristin McGetrick is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and is also certified in Functional Movement Systems. She is a former collegiate rower and coxswain, and received her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from George Washington University. Cristin has been a member of the SMARTherapy staff and Washington Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine since 2014.
Brian Hodge is a SMARTherapy physical therapist at Washington Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine who specializes in working with runners as well as injuries of the neck, foot, and ankle. He has a master’s degree in physical therapy from Marymount University and has been with WOSM since 2005.
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