Last week I shared some of the feedback from my session at the UVA speed clinic, and one of the points I learned was that I have enough flexibility and do not need to stretch. Even my hip flexors, which I always feel like I need to stretch. Almost two years ago I wrote a post about “The Great Stretching Debate“, so as a follow-up to that and going along with the information provided to me at the speed clinic I thought I would tackle this topic once again.
Please remember that I am not a physical therapist or other type of medical professional; I am a certified running coach but this information is based on what I have learned through my own experiences and articles I have read, in which case I will link to those sources.
Why do our muscles feel tight?
In a perfect world, when a muscle felt tight we could stretch it for 30 seconds and it would feel better. However, that isn’t usually how it works. Have you ever found that the same areas always feel tight, and no matter how much you stretch them it just doesn’t get better? If so, there is a reason for this. There is also a reason why you may feel initial relief in that area after you stretch, only for the pain or tightness to return again later.
The tightness we feel in our muscles is strongly connected to our nervous systems, and can be affected by more than just our physical endeavors. Even our emotions can cause certain areas of our bodies to tighten up. It’s also important for runners to think about what they are doing when they are not running. If you are sitting at work all day, feeling stressed, eating poorly, etc, these things will have a negative affect on your body and could even cause your muscles to tense up.
There is also an interesting protective factor to muscle tightness. In some cases your body might not allow you to get into your full range of motion in a certain area because of compensatory patterns that have developed due to other areas that are weak, or your body is just not used to that range of motion and tenses up to protect itself from going too far.
We also need to consider why the same areas may always feel tight. Do we always sit a certain way? Are we overusing those muscles for some reason? Maybe there is a way to prevent those muscles from getting tight to begin with.
What are the benefits to stretching?
We want to have enough range of motion in our bodies to be active, but depending on your activity of choice that ideal range may be different. Dancers and gymnasts need more flexibility than runners, but people who are inactive could benefit from any type of movement. If you are exercising, and doing a range of activities, you can potentially be taking your body through some of those ranges which is good. If you only do one type of physical activity, you many need to think about improving range of motion in areas that are not addressed through that activity.
As runners, we don’t typically take our hips into full flexion (think pulling your knee to your chest). When we sit our hips are flexed at about 90 degrees, which is about how far we will also flex them while running (maybe less depending on form and speed). So it could be beneficial to bring your hips into full flexion a few times a day. This could be by including deep squats into your workout routine, or squatting on the floor while reading blogs.
What are potential negative effects of stretching?
For this question I am not talking about moving your body gently into different ranges of motion but about those of us that pull our bodies into a stretch after we exercise with the aim of improving flexibility. Your hamstrings feel tight after a run, so you try to touch your toes by reaching as far as you can towards the ground. What happens when your force this type of movement?
There has been alot of research showing that doing this can actually cause the muscle to tense more as a defense mechanism, and ultimately become tighter. Also, when we stretch an injured muscle it can delay healing by straining the muscles fibers and connective tissues more. However, stretching an injured area may lead to temporary relief because sensory stimulation (like rubbing an injured area) can block pain receptors.
Why should we stretch?
If you know for sure that you are missing range of motion in an area, and need to improve it in order to participate in your sport efficiently, you can take a structured approach to working to lengthen that area. Based on my research, this is way more complicated than “improve muscle flexibility” as it includes more than just muscle length. A fairly conservative plan of gently stretching often and for longer periods of time along with self-myofascial release may be a good place to start. It may also be worth consulting with a professional.
I also think we need to keep in mind that our bodies are meant to move. If we sit all day, it’s important to try to move more, and maybe that includes a little bit of gentle stretching. We don’t want to get used to being in the same position all the time, which is what can lead to some restrictions in other positions.
Remember that mobility and range of motion can be achieved in other ways besides stretching. Strength training, cross-training, yoga, and other activities can lead to improvement in these areas if done mindfully and strategically.
Why do muscles feel tight even if they have enough flexibility and range of motion?
As I said above, sometimes our nervous system can cause us to feel tension in our muscles due to psychosocial factors such as stress and other emotions. Also, we can feel tension or notice restrictions in movement due to more than just “short muscles”. Think of factors that affect mobility, such as soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues.
As runners, we need to remember that we are using our bodies dynamically, and any flexibility we need for our gait cycle is different than just static flexibility. Just because you can touch your toes doesn’t necessarily mean you have the dynamic flexibility to run. This is where dynamic stretches (think leg swings, myrtle routine, lunges) can help and may actually make you feel better while you are running.
What about yoga?
Yoga shouldn’t be thought of as just “static stretching” because it is intended to be much more than that. There is an important mindful component where you should actually be improving your own body awareness and be better able to recognize your own limitations, and slowly make changes to improve in areas where it’s needed. Another helpful piece of yoga is that many of the poses build strength, which is so important for runners. It seems there is a perfect balance of moving the body through different positions (to improve range of motion, as discussed above), while also building strength and developing body awareness.
As I said in my last post about this topic, if what you are doing is working for you, you probably don’t need to make any drastic changes to your routine. However, if you are constantly stretching an area of your body that has given you ongoing problems, maybe you need to think outside the box. From what I have read we can’t stretch our way out of an injury. Also, if you absolutely hate stretching and just “go through the motions” every day, it may not really be helping you anyway.
Stretching should be specific and with a purpose, and we should never overstretch. It will probably be something you need to figure out for yourself. Consider rethinking the idea of “flexibility” and instead think about the range of motion required for your sport, and what types of movement you could benefit from adding into your routine. As with most things, I think that moderation is key. I would be interested to hear if anyone makes changes to their stretching routine and if they feel any different!
Do you stretch? If so, what is your routine like?
What is your opinion on this topic? If you don’t stretch, is it because you don’t like it or because you don’t need it?
Some of the information for this post was taken from the following sources: