Should runners stretch before a race?

We have been told since we were children to stretch before we run or we will injure ourselves. Head to the start line of any local running event and you will find every 2nd or 3rd person doing some sort of runners stretch. For most runners, stretching before a run becomes a habit, but does it really matter if we stretch or not before a run? It’s not as though it will do us any harm, right?

Should runners stretch before a race?

Static stretching, that is, stretching a muscle and holding it in a position for a period of time, has been found to reduce running economy and performance for up to an hour (Wilson et al., 2010). It does this by reducing muscle and tendon stiffness which reduces elastic energy potential. Basically, your legs work like a spring when running, absorbing and releasing energy. By stretching your muscle and tendon before a race, you are running on longer, looser springs rather than the preferred shorter, stiffer springs.

Recommendation: Do not statically stretch before a run if you are worried about your performance.

What should you do to warm up before a race?

If we aren’t stretching before a race, what are we doing? Standing still waiting for the gun to go off?

Well, we know that when running from a standing start without warm up, the body takes about 3 minutes to reach an equilibrium between your breathing/heart rate/energy production and your pace. We have all experienced this when we start running without a warm up, you feel unusually out of breath for a few minutes before settling into a rhythm. 

So what can we do about this? Doing some low intensity aerobic exercise to basically fire up our bodies energy production systems is a great way to warm up.

Recommendation: Do a short 3-5 minute jog or some jogging on the spot prior to running.

Does stretching regularly reduce risk of injury?

Stretching has long been thought to reduce the risk of injury. Not because we have a lot of evidence telling us this, mainly because stretching feels good at the time and can help reduce small aches and pains in the short term.

Unfortunately, evidence now tells us that stretching regularly does not reduce the risk of running related injuries (Baxter et al., 2017). However, this does not mean stretching doesn’t have a roll for athletes at all. If you feel like stretching on the floor after a long day, go for it! It’s a relaxing process where you can mentally unwind and get to know your body. 

Similarly, yoga (which incorporates stretching and strengthening) can help reduce mental stress and anxiety. We know that mental stress has an impact on running performance, so anything to reduce this is an important aspect of a runners training. Furthermore, many types of yoga involves significant strength work, which is important for injury prevention in runners.

Final Verdict

  • Don’t do static stretches before running. If you really want to, do them more than an hour before hand.
  • Don’t do static stretches thinking it will reduce injury risk. Strengthening and managing your running load, sleep and diet is far more important for injury prevention.
  • Don’t feel like you have to stop stretching altogether! Stretching to wind down after a long day or doing yoga can be helpful.

References

Wilson, J. M., Hornbuckle, L. M., Kim, J. S., Ugrinowitsch, C., Lee, S. R., Zourdos, M. C., … & Panton, L. B. (2010). Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research24(9), 2274-2279.

Baxter, C., Mc Naughton, L. R., Sparks, A., Norton, L., & Bentley, D. (2017). Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Research in Sports Medicine25(1), 78-90.

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