Every year or so, a sports medicine article lauds (or questions) the value of stretching. I’ve read enough conflicting views on the subject to place most trust in my own experiences as a runner and coach. But Tamra (Trehearn) Llewellyn’s (’06) recent research raises fascinating points that question our perceived notions about flexibility in running.
Runners and coaches have long operated on the assumption that increased flexibility leads to improved athletic performance. Yet Llewellyn’s study suggests that less flexible distance runners tend to move with greater economy. And efficiency is incredibly important in distance running.
|So many athletes just don’t know how to read their bodies. Stretching after the run focuses them on different muscles and helps them get to know their bodies.|
Her results make sense. Imagine a door opening and closing on a traditional hinge. Now replace that hinge with a contraption made from loose rubber bands. The door now swings with greater flexibility but less efficiency. It’s free to wobble every which way as it opens and shuts. In the same way, tighter runners may experience greater control and efficiency in their strides.
Don’t take this news as an argument to stop stretching altogether. It’s not a question of whether you should stretch. It’s a question of when you should stretch to best prevent injuries. And here is where I tend to turn away from the scientific debate and look squarely at my own experience.
I’ve been doing this long enough to have experienced two “running lives”: one as a younger runner and another as a coach at Nebraska Wesleyan University. I’ve suffered fewer injuries since I began coaching at NWU about 17 years ago. I credit much of the difference to an increased emphasis on post-run stretching.
Dr. Paul Coffin of Sioux City, Iowa, once told me that stretching before a run is like taking a dry leaf and crumpling it in your hand. Your muscles are dry and somewhat brittle and don’t take that crumple very well. Run first and your muscles warm into something more like a soft, supple leaf that responds much better to that crumpling and pulling.
Stretching should remain a part of your daily running life. It relaxes your mind and tunes up your body. Even if flexibility isn’t as valuable in running as some originally believed, I’ll continue to do it and coach it because I believe it develops body awareness. So many athletes just don’t know how to read their bodies. Stretching after a run focuses them on different muscles and helps them get to know their bodies.
Our goal is to keep our runners healthy as they build themselves into the best athletes they can be at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Digesting all the new information out there helps them to know their sport. That knowledge makes them better athletes and, hopefully, lifelong runners, too.
I applaud Llewellyn’s research and every effort at NWU to help student-athletes to know their bodies and their sports.
Field Notes Update
A year ago, Associate Professor of Biology Jeff Isaacson wrote about the questionable science behind claims of a link between vaccines and autism (“Vaccines and Autism,” summer 2010). Isaacson referred to a retracted study claiming a link published in The Lancet.
This January, BMJ, the British Medical Journal, reported that that study wasn’t merely inaccurate. It was fraudulent, altering facts to suggest a link to autism. Read the article at bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c5347.