Case for cross-training, Part 3: Stretching
By Matt Fitzgerald
This series is adapted from Matt Fitzgerald's forthcoming book, "Runner's
World Guide to Cross-Training." Part 1 begins here.
The primary perceived benefit of stretching for runners is injury prevention.
But in the best recent controlled studies, stretching has not reduced the
incidence of injuries to the lower extremities to a statistically significant
degree. On the basis of such studies, many exercise physiologist-s advise
runners not to stretch.
The main problem with this advice and the studies upon which it is based is that
they come at stretching from the wrong side of injury. Targeted stretching of
abnormally tight muscles and tendons has proven to be an extremely effective
means of rehabilitating and preventing the recurrence of specific injuries in
This is because abnormal tightness in specific muscles and tendons is without
question a contributing cause of particular running injuries, and stretching can
increase the elasticity of muscles and tendons.
Every day, physical therapists prescribe targeted stretching exercises to
rehabilitate and prevent recurrence of five different injuries that are
frequently associated with tightness in muscles and tendons.
Abnormally tight calves and Achilles tendons contribute to plantar fasciitis,
shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, and calf muscle strains. Abnormally tight
hamstrings and hip flexors often precipitate strains in these muscles. And an
abnormally tight iliotibial band is commonly seen in runners suffering from IT
band friction syndrome.
There is no doubt that stretching plays a positive role in the successful
rehabilitation of many cases of these injuries, so it only stands to reason that
it can also prevent many cases of these same injuries (or at least prevent their
For this reason, I recommend that you stretch the above-mentioned muscles and
Another controversial question is the relationship between flexibility and
performance. Stretching advocates claim that runners need to be very flexible in
order to take long strides. Others believe that runners get all the flexibility
they need through the activity of running itself.
In this case both sides are half-right. There are two muscle groups that are
unusually flexible in most elite runners: the hips and the shoulders. Non-elite
runners can surely benefit from stretching these muscle groups and thereby
increasing the range of motion of the shoulders and hips.
But this alone will probably not improve your stride length, because regular
stretching exercises increase only passive range of motion, whereas running
requires dynamic flexibility, which is the ability to perform sports movements
with minimal internal resistance from your own muscles and joints.
This is the distinction that stretching skeptics are trying to get at when they
say running itself gives us all the flexibility we need. While the distinction
is real, the best way to increase dynamic flexibility is not by running but
rather by performing dynamic stretching exercises.
Dynamic stretches are movements that mimic the way your muscles and connective
tissues actually stretch during running. An example is the leg swing (described
Performing dynamic stretches on a regular basis reduces internal resistance in
your running movements and thereby enhances the efficiency of your stride.
These stretches also make for excellent warm-up movements, because they increase
dynamic flexibility acutely from resting to active levels by warming, loosening,
and lubricating the muscles.
Dynamic stretching warm-up
The following dynamic stretching warm-up will increase your active range of
motion for individual workouts and increase your dynamic flexibility generally.
Do it 2-3 times per week as a part of your warm-up, following several minutes of
Swing your right arm in a giant circle. Do 6 forward rotations and 6 backward
rotations and then repeat with your left arm.
Raise your arms straight out to the sides. Twist your torso as far as you can to
the right. Without pausing, reverse direction and twist over to the left. Repeat
Stand on your left foot and swing your right leg backward and forward in an
exaggerated kicking motion. Complete 10 swings and repeat with the left leg.
Side leg swings
Stand facing a wall, lean forward slightly at the waist, and brace your hands
against the wall. Lift your right foot off the ground and swing your right leg
from side to side (like a pendulum) between your left leg and the wall. Do 10
swings and then switch to the left leg.
Take 10 giant steps forward with each foot, lunging as far forward as you can
Lean forward against a wall with your feet close together and flat on the
ground. Raise both heels as high as possible and then "bounce" them
off the ground. Repeat 20 times.
Matt Fitzgerald coaches runners and triathletes online through Carmichael
Training Systems (www.trainright.com) and is the author of "Triathlete
Magazine's Complete Triathlon Book" and "Runner's World Guide to