Ask the Expert: How and When Should I Stretch?


Deep breath in, now reach down and touch your toes. Lift your arms high and lean to one side. Now the other. Do these moves sound familiar? Stretching might seem like a natural part of any warm up or cool down, but don't just go through the motions. Different movements accomplish different things, and even timing matters when it comes to stretching. So we asked our expert, physical therapist Brian at Athletico when and how should runners stretch?

What kind of stretches are there? 

"There are two kinds of stretching: dynamic and static. They can be explained by the contrast of motion (dynamic) versus sitting still (static). Things like toe touch, hurdler’s stretch, butterfly stretch—holding those positions for a sustained period of time is static. Dynamic is more of an active stretch where you’re moving, so if you ever see a runner (sprinter usually) doing high knees, leg kicks, butt kicks-- that's dynamic stretching."

When should a runner do either form of stretching? 

"My personal philosophy is: dynamic stretch before or partway into my run, and static stretch at the end of my run. Why I do that personally, and why a lot of higher level coaches prefer that, is because there's evidence that static stretching can fatigue your muscles a great deal, and the last thing you want to do is do some static stretching, fatigue your muscles and then try to run 12 miles."

What's the difference between what static and dynamic stretching accomplish?

"Static stretches increase the length of your muscle over time, but that takes weeks or months. For anyone who wants to do speed races, longer muscles alter an athlete’s ability to do speed work, which is why you rarely see any high level sprinters do static stretching.

Static stretching feels good and helps with cramping, which is why I'll sit and do static stretching afterwards. And it helps with a cool down. So when I run, first I’ll do something to get my heart rate up, like drop down and do 50 pushups, then I’ll pay close attention the first mile. If I feel really tight, I’ll stop at a bike rack or something and do some dynamic stretches.

It’s not ideal to ever stretch cold—that’s when you end up with muscle strains and tendon irritation. But if you can do something that elevates your heart rate, increases body temperature, and warms up your muscles before a run, that can help.

Ultimately, stretching should be beneficial and promote muscle response. It shouldn’t be exhausting, and the last thing you want to do is overstrain your muscles."

Brian also recommends asking experienced and trained runners (maybe at your local running store) what their best stretch method is for ideas, but always remember that what works for someone else, might not work for you. Test the waters, do some research, experiment, and above all, as with all pieces of advice from our expert: listen to your body! 

Have anything you need to ask Brian from Athletico? Tweet us at @StrideNBC and we'll answer your questions! 

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