Stretching (the truth)
Being an outsider has its perks. For most of the eight years I’ve been running, I haven’t had a passion for it; running has been my preferred form of exercise and little else. Now that I do enjoy running for its own sake, I’m learning that I missed out on a lot of the thrill that accompanies throwing temperance to the wind and diving headlong into an endeavor. But by remaining on the fringes of the running community, I’ve avoided something else as well: the groupthink that comes from being completely wrapped up in a single activity, the missing of the forest for the trees that often results in the most inner circles of anything being the most static and barren of innovation.
And running, by nature, is particularly susceptible to the “this works, this doesn’t, that’s just the way it is” mentality. Injuries (and improvements) don’t happen suddenly; their cause is rarely certain. When a runner’s hamstring acts up, she can only guess at what might have been the gradual cause of the ailment, based on anecdotal evidence from a few running buddies or the insiders down at the running store. So she makes a few changes based on what she’s learned, and the seeds of superstition are planted. Whether the hamstring gets better or not, the runner has a half-dozen new “reasons” to cite for the result.
I suspect this is how the notion of stretching gained popularity and became gospel in the running community. When Runner’s World published an article in its September 2009 issue citing some of the mounting scientific evidence to suggest that not only does stretching not help, it may actually hinder, runners were outraged. Bloggers and forum participants refused to accept the outcome, “knowing” deep down that stretching helped and using the article as fuel to keep on stretch, stretch, stretching. Screw science, statistics, and the Law of Large Numbers! Just have faith.
Sound like something else? There’s a reason I called it “gospel.”
The fact is that there are many studies, even more than are cited in the Runner’s World article, showing that stretching does absolutely nothing to prevent injury. Some suggest that stretching actually causes injury, but this much isn’t clear. It has, however, been shown to hinder performance in activities requiring short, powerful bursts of energy.
The studies are based on empirical evidence, not theory or anecdotes from old-school, 1970’s running coaches. When a bunch of carefully-designed studies look at large numbers of people and all show the same results, there’s little superstition can do to stand up to the science. Even the theoretical objections are easily discounted. Stretching is at least a good way to warm up, right? No, stretching doesn’t do anything to raise your heart rate, and stretching a cold muscle is a great way to hurt it. But distance running causes muscles to tighten, so we need to loosen them up! No, we don’t. Muscles become shorter, tighter, and more powerful as an adaptation to the workload we give them. Your body knows better than old-school running coach guy does. Well, at the very least, stretching is a great cooldown activity, no? Sure, if it keeps you from sitting down for five minutes. But you could also jog, walk, play hopscotch, stand on one leg, or spin around in a circle for a little while instead. Ok, maybe you shouldn’t spin in a circle.
The bottom line: embrace science, don’t resist it. Organized hypothesis testing is a lot more reliable than the story you piece together from talking to your four running friends or the one 70-year old you know who swears by a beer every morning and a good stretch before every run. Old school is old for a reason; it has been replaced. In the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, don’t blindly stick with what you’ve always believed just for the sake of blindly sticking with what you’ve always believed. Running isn’t a religion, and stretching shouldn’t be gospel.
By Matt Frazier