Reasons to stretch: A response to the Rad Racer

As much as Caitlin – also known by her Flash-like internet-alter-ego Rad Racer – is one of my favorite people here in Columbia, I couldn’t resist taking issue with her latest blog post about stretching.

Let me preface my arguments by pointing out that Cait is a runner. Not just an “I go jogging on Saturdays” kind of runner. Or the “I speed walk on the treadmill while reading a magazine” kind of runner. No, she’s a member of an elite group that has earned the right to call themselves legitimate runners. So I will be the first in line to bow to her running prowess.
But I do take issue with finding excuses not to include stretching in a workout or running plan.  And not just because I’m a member of the “splits” club.

The rubber band continuum

Too many people put stretching into two categories: the I-can-bend-my-body-in-unnatural-ways category and the I-can-barely-sit-cross-legged category. But there’s a lot more happening on this continuum.

To stretch does not mean setting a goal of being oober flexible and pushing until you either reach the goal or pull too many muscles. Let’s be honest. If you didn’t gain that flexibility as a kid and then maintain it into adulthood, odds are you’re not going to be a splits guru. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely possible. Just not that likely.

So just like I can’t say I’m a runner, many people can’t say they’re flexible. But they can – and should – stretch. Because…

Stretching = less pain

I risk losing the proudly inflexible crowd at this point, but stick with me. Cait used this article to support her rant against stretching.

I want to point out that this article address pre-run stretching only. Also, the results were not exactly conclusive: “Stretching before a run neither prevents nor causes injury, according to a study presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).” So this tells me what? *Confused and suspicious look*

One blogger wrote that “stretching after you run will help remove the lactate (I had to look it up too) from your muscles that was generated during your run. In addition, stretching will help strengthen your muscles, enabling you to run better and helping you avoid injury.”

He also agreed that stretching, if you’re not careful, can contribute to injury. If you feel too much pain, don’t pull your muscles as much. Be smart, people.

Another blogger added that keeping your muscles loose and stretched will also help in keeping your form while on a run or race, which will provide your body a better range of motion and longer strides to help you run faster.” This should stand out to you marathon types.

Dr. Murray Weisenfeld in his book The Runners’ Repair Manual said that working out causes tiny tears in your muscles that, when they heal, form scar tissue. “This scar tissue cannot be flexed or stretched. So every time you run, your muscles are getting tighter and tighter — and less able to stretch. A tight, inflexible muscle is a setup for injury. It can’t take the shocks and jolts of running or the constant pulling of a long runner’s stride.”

Defining the stretch

Understanding the different types of stretching may take the scariness of the butterfly.

The static stretching is what probably comes to mind for most people. Picture sitting on the ground and spending 30 seconds in the sit-and-reach, then a minute in the butterfly, etc.

This is what you should not do before a workout. On this pre-run point, I agree with the study(ies) and the frenzy of blog posts.

Ballistic stretch: This is a partner-in-crime with the static stretch, and it’s vintage in a way that we don’t want to resurrect. Any injury or pain you feel by holding a stretch will be worse when you bounce it.

Dynamic stretching is where I want to focus. It uses movement to warm up and stretch your muscles.  This is where the non-stretching types should hang out and is a good place to start pre-run.

It is probably better to think of dynamic stretching as a basic warm up. Some of my favorites include arm circles and arm crosses, walking lunges and butt kicks, some toe-touch kicks, and side bends (with a side lunge for those bold enough). I also like to do a quick calf stretch, as those tend to cramp up for me. I also don’t buy the argument that if you haven’t stretched, don’t start. You don’t ever need to move past small steps, but those steps can make a big difference.

My point here is that incorporating some dynamic/moving stretches in a warm-up helps raise your heart rate, get your blood flowing, reduce muscle tightness and – shocker – warm up the muscles for a pain and injury-free run.

Stretching cold muscles is a recipe for a pulled hamstring. Some warm-up movements with stretching is smart fitness. And if you’re really adverse to hitting the floor for some static stretches after a run, just repeat the “dynamics” as a cool-down.

Stretching is “weird, boring and relaxing”

I’ve hit Cait’s other two arguments pretty well, but it would be a poor response if I didn’t address all five.

Weird: “Stretching advocates looooove to talk about the splits, but let’s face it, the splits are unnatural. They’re awkward. They’re disconcerting to onlookers,” she wrote. “If you can think of any reason to do the splits that doesn’t boil down to “Hey, look at me—I’m making full use of a unitard!” then please do enlighten us.”

I, for one, don’t spend much time talking about the splits and even less time doing them in front of other people. I have a general rule to keep them to myself. Yes, the splits are weird. Stretching feels and looks strange. Keep it to yourself, but do your body the favor.

Boring: No, I’ve never seen Jason Statham stretch. (Though I am 99% sure he does and that would not be boring.) Also no, stretching does not have to take a long time. Get past the sit and hold mentality and, again, do your body a favor.

Relaxing: Umm… that’s kind of the point. If you spend your time prepared for an “attack from any number of unnamed foes” as Caitlin apparently does, you have waaay too many problems to worry about stretching.

So Rad Racer, while you are stuck as a toddler struggling to move in a snow suit, I prefer to be the toddler that can eat her toes. Besides, those ninjas ready to jam can do all sorts of contorted things with their body parts. Don’t worry, you’re still awesome. You should just rethink your stretching woes.

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