Is stretching important for endurance runners?
Most of the highest level professional endurance runners aren’t particularly flexible at all. This makes a lot of sense when we think about their need for efficiency. Running doesn’t require a huge amount of flexibility to do when you break down the movements involved. A level of stiffness provides stability and means that less energy is needed to stabilise structures like your pelvis when your foot is in contact with the ground. Endurance runners need to be efficient. This means that they move as much as is needed with good control and movement patterns to limit excessive movement in less productive/energy wasting positions. Being able to touch your toes is probably less relevant than the strength of your muscles and tendons.
In terms of recovery, stretching has very little/no effect on DOMS or risk of overuse injuries. Does that mean we can sack off stretching altogether? (I can almost feel people celebrating already). Not really (sorry!). There is a balance that we want to achieve. We want our athletes to be flexible enough to have the range they need specific to their sport, but let’s be specific with which structures we need to stretch, why, how and when. We also work on strength and control in those areas you need to be a resilient, strong, efficient runner.
So stretching isn’t the answer to all your running problems but it does have a role to play, one that is probably more person specific and less black and white than you might hope. In the grand scheme though it’s importance is often overestimated compared to other factors.
I think an important question to ask is whether you do enough strength work to build the capacity in your muscles and tendons so that they’re able to tolerate the loads required of the kind of running you want to do. Most of the injuries I see in runners ultimately boil down to a discrepancy between load and capacity rather than tight muscles. This can be altered either by increasing the capacity (making the muscle/tendons etc stronger) or by modifying the load (spoiler alert – I barely ever recommend complete rest).
Baxter, C., McNaughton, L., Sparks, A. and Norton, L. H. 2016. Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Research in sports medicine an international journal 25 (1).
Written by Rebekah Knight, Physiotherapist.
Rebekah graduated from Cardiff University with a BSc Physiotherapy in 2013.
Read more about Rebekah