To Stretch or Not?

To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

To stretch or not to stretch? Impact on performance and injury rates in runners.
By Thomas Michaud, DC

To Your Health: Exploring the Science of Stretching

To Stretch or NotThe debate is raging over whether stretching is more effective than not stretching, particularly when it comes to running.

Given the improved running efficiency associated with muscle tightness, you would think that the world’s fastest runners would all be extremely stiff. Yet today’s elite runners are actually significantly more flexible because tight muscles are easily injured and more likely to be sore after a hard workout. So, to stretch or not to stretch? Let’s find out.

In 1986, Rob DeCastella set a course record by running the Boston Marathon in 2:07:51, just 39 seconds off the world record.

A few days be­fore the race, I saw Rob in my office; when I checked his hamstring flexibility, I was shocked to see he could barely raise each leg 30 degrees off the table (even tight runners can raise their legs 60 degrees). Having never seen hamstrings that tight, I asked Rob if he ever stretched. He responded: “When I run, that’s as far as my legs go forward, so that’s as far as I want them to go forward.”

At the time, it was just assumed that runners had to stretch to run fast and remain injury-free, but here was one of the world’s fastest runners who not only didn’t stretch regularly, but avoided stretching altogether!

According to conventional wisdom, I should have encouraged Rob to stretch, but I didn’t. Besides being one of the world’s fastest runners, Rob DeCastella knew a lot about exercise physiology and I trusted his judgment.

Years later, research appeared suggesting tight runners were metabolically more efficient than flexible runners. This is what DeCastella intuitively knew: Tight muscles can store and return energy in the form of elastic recoil, just like a rubber band can stretch and snap back with no effort. Because tight muscles provide free energy (i.e., the muscle fibers are not short­ening to produce force, so there is no metabolic expense), stiff muscles can significantly im­prove efficiency when running long distances.

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