It’s become something of a cliché, but runners and stretching are like Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel in the Fast & Furious franchise – they don’t especially get along but are forced to work together to produce something amazing (if you count Fast & Furious 1 to 8 as amazing).
Most runners are as flexible as a plank of hardwood. And it's not surprising. You'll often find runners before a race or parkrun bouncing around, before doing the odd token quad stretch, simply because they think it's the thing to do or because everyone else is doing it.
But that's not what stretching should be. Dynamic stretching, in particular, can have positive effects on your entire body, as well as your running. As well as improving range of motion, it can help to prevent injuries further down the line and even boost your VO2 max.
So, with the help of Miranda Mason, specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Pure Sports Medicine, we run through how and why you should perform dynamic stretches before running.
The differences between static and dynamic stretching
There are two main types of stretching: static and dynamic.
Static stretching is when you hold a muscle under tension, usually for around 30 seconds.
‘Consistent static stretching, over a period of six weeks, has been shown to improve overall flexibility,’ says Mason. ‘However, static stretching immediately prior to exercise can actually inhibit performance, especially in short, explosive tasks, such as sprinting or track sessions due to the physiological changes seen in the muscle and the decreased ability to store elastic energy from static stretching.’
In addition, Mason adds that static stretching comes with the risk of acutely straining a muscle, causing a decrease in force development and an increase in oxygen requirement for the hour following the stretching regime, possibly leading to injury.
Dynamic stretching, however, differs in that it includes plyometric movements while stretching.
‘Dynamic stretching has been shown to improve running performance, with respect to the stretch-shortening cycle [SSC],’ says Mason. ‘The SSC is where an active muscle-lengthening [stretch] is followed immediately by an active muscle-shortening – this is essentially what allows us to run.’
Using plyometric exercises such as bounding, hopping and jumping exaggerates the SSC, and the effects can be seen as quickly as six weeks into a stretching programme.
The benefits of dynamic stretching before a run
Improves running economy
Mason says that dynamic stretching leads to a significant improvement in running economy in elite runners. ‘Improvements in running economy from the warm-up have been shown to result in superior running performance due to a reduced energy cost at submaximal intensities.’
There's also evidence to suggest that athletes with superior running economy can compensate for limitations in VO2 max when compared to other athletes. The use of dynamic stretches within a warm-up, which utilise this stretch-shortening cycle, has also been shown to elevate VO2 to the same degree as a gentle 15-minute run as a warm-up.
‘The aim of a warm-up is to elevate VO2 [your body’s ability to transport and use oxygen while performing aerobic exercise such as running], as well as mobilise the muscles in preparation for the task ahead,’ says Mason.
One study found a warm-up consisting of 4-5 minutes of dynamic stretches to be more effective than a 15-minute zone 2 effort on performance. Participants’ warm-up protocol consisted of leg swings, knee to chest, butt kicks, holding the thigh parallel to the floor and extending the knee straight out in front of you, and heel raises into toe raises. Ten repetitions of each exercise were performed as quickly as possible.
Reduces injury risk
‘Stretching is considered a tool for reducing the risk of injury for endurance athletes and is an additional reason dynamic stretching is often used by endurance runners,’ says Mason. Endurance athletes are less likely to encounter muscle strain injuries compared to more explosive sports such as sprinting.
In terms of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), there is no evidence to suggest that stretching, either as part of a daily routine or as part of a warm-up, has the ability to reduce either the presence of DOMS or the prevalence of chronic injury in long-distance runners.
‘DOMS is usually triggered by a series of biochemical changes that occur as a result of muscle damage, when individuals are exposed to high-force eccentric contractions repeatedly and/or unaccustomed exercise – running down hills, or high-intensity running, is a common precursor for DOMS in runners.’
How to stretch dynamically
Dynamic stretches are all about moving your body. They are designed to get your muscles and joints warmed-up, open up your hips, stimulate blood flow and get your body ready for the upcoming workout.
Dynamic stretching usually involves moving parts of your body through a range of motion and the exercises can be done quickly without the use of equipment.
It is important to note that plyometric exercises, such as jumping, bounding and hopping, are particularly useful to boost running economy, prior to faster sessions of running, such as a track session.
Mason warns not to overdo it, though, as too much can result in a deterioration in performance due to an increase in fatigue. If in doubt, seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional with experience seeing runners.
Dynamic stretching examples
A typical active warm-up for a long-distance runner could commence with 5-10 minutes of walking or easy jogging.
If preparing for a fast running effort, training session or race, then incorporate 6-8 dynamic movement drills with particular focus on the lower limbs.
Mason recommends doing the following dynamic stretches before running:
2. Side lunges
3. Leg swings
4. Walking single-leg deadlifts
5. Heel-to-bum kicks
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