Around sports scientists and coaches, stretching is one of the most controversial subjects imaginable.
My personal experiences as a coach/athlete suggest that regular stretching is a must, and when done properly can actually help in the prevention of and rehabilitation from, certain sorts of injuries.
Unfortunately there is no answer as to the scientifically measured benefits (or not) of stretching and none of the major issues surrounding the topic have been resolved.
Nevertheless, based on observational research (in other words watching athletes over more than one decade) and personal experience, I’m confident in saying that every runner should stretch regularly.
A couple of things are certain, if you stretch correctly it will never injure you and it may help prevent and rehabilitate you from certain niggles.
The four forms of stretching that I will touch on here are; 1) static; 2) active-isolated; 3) proprioceptive-neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching and 4) yoga.
You can decide which form best suits your needs and requirements.
1) Static stretching
Static Stretching is probably the most easily recognisable style of stretching for runners. Touching your toes is an example of this form of stretching. Static style stretching generally means that the specific targeted muscles aren’t stretching themselves.
If we use the toe-touch example just mentioned, the hamstrings aren’t stretching themselves, nor are the quads on the opposite side of the leg producing the stretch. The stretch is brought about by the tilting of the pelvic girdle, which in turn places tension on the origin of the hamstring muscle group leading to the stretching sensation through them.
Most of the time, such a stretch is held for a short period (10-to-30 seconds ideally) and repeated executions of this style of stretching tend to work better than one.
2) Active-isolated stretching
This was originally developed to overcome various shortcomings inherent in static stretching. In this style of stretching you place yourself in a position that allows you to stretch a specific muscle group (e.g. hamstrings) while contracting the muscles opposite (quads).
Each stretch is held for a few seconds and repeated a number of times. This sort of stretching generally requires something like a rope to pull the region to be stretched into position. The main drawback of this style is that it tends to be awkward and often times the athlete doesn’t feel like it is doing much.
3) Proprioceptive-neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)
PNF stretching isn’t unlike active-isolated stretching.
Using the hamstring example, with a PNF stretch you’d be lying on your back with both legs fully extended along the floor, then one leg is either picked up by a training partner or placed by yourself against an immoveable objective at slightly less than a right angle to the ground. You then do an isometric contraction of the targeted muscle group (in our example, the hamstrings), hold it briefly and then relax. This contraction/relaxation process helps trigger a reflex that allows the muscle to be moved through a greater range of motion.
Many studies have shown this form of stretching to be an effective means of improving the range of motion around certain joint capsules and it is most effectively completed with a training partner.
Yoga involves a combination of active and static stretching; it is in fact a combination of the different forms of stretching described above. With yoga stretching you assume a static stretching position.
Like PNF stretching you contract (and then differently to PNF stretching) relax the targeted muscle in a coordinated sequence. With yoga you hold one set of muscles in an isometric contraction, while relaxing and stretching the antagonist (opposite side) muscles with a view to eventually reversing the whole process.
It increases both passive and dynamic flexibility – crucial in most sports – as well as balance and coordination. Current research also indicates that yoga may have other benefits in that it lowers anxiety and stress.
Certain forms of yoga have also been shown to improve muscle strength, because of the repeated isometric contractions done through a range of motion; however this largely depends on the style of yoga practiced.
So while the scientific jury may be still out arguing the pros and cons of stretching, with my practical experience and observation with my athletes I suggest stretching is should be in your exercise program!