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Monday, September 20, 2010

Static Stretching Can Impair Distance Running Performance

At times it can be difficult to find sports science articles that have true relevance to athletes. But here's one that can have real impact. A study by Wilson et al. (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol 24, no. 9, pp. 2274-2279, 2010) provides strong evidence that static stretching before a distance-running event can impair performance among young, male athletes.

Static stretching involves stretching a muscle to the point of mild discomfort and holding the stretch for 10-30 seconds. We have previously highlighted previous evidence that static stretching can impair jumping performance. It has also been shown to reduce maximal leg-press strength, 20-meter sprint speed, and knee-extension torque. Yet this is the first study to examine the effect of static stretching on endurance performance.

Experimental Procedure
10 male collegiate competitive distance-runners and triathletes who ran at least 20 miles per week and were in excellent aerobic condition were tested on 2 different days, at least a week apart, after the following:
  1. 16 minutes of stretching consisting of the following 5 stretches each performed 4 times for 30 seconds of holding:: 1) sit on floor with knees straight and reach with both hands to and beyond the toes, 2) stand with balls of feet on a block, letting bodyweight stretch calves, 3) for both left and right, stand on 1 leg and pull the opposite heel toward the butt 4) for both left and right, lunge deeply, and 5) cross the left leg over the right one, and pull the right thigh towards the torso, repeating for other side
  2. Quiet Sitting
After stretching or not stretching, the subjects underwent the following treadmill tests:
  1. Run at 65% of maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) for 30 minutes while energy-cost is measured.
  2. After 2 minutes of rest and rehydration, run as far as possible in 30 minutes (subjects could control treadmill speed and see a time display, but not see a speed or distance display).
Experimental Results
On the no-strech day, the athletes performed significantly better as follows:
  • They covered an average of 6.0 km in 30 minutes on the no-stretch day compared to 5.8 km on the stretch day
  • They required an average of 425 calories on the stretch day vs. 405 calories on the no-stretch day to do the 30-minute submaximal run.

Bottom Line
Static stretching before running hurt the athletes' distance-running performance. After stretching they required more energy to run the same speed in the submaximal test, while in the maximal-distance 30-minute test they were not able to run as far. These differences can easily affect the chance of winning a race. The negative effect of static stretching appears to be due to a reduction in the spring-like stiffness of the leg muscles resulting in lower efficiency. Thus, it does not appear advisable to do static stretching before distance-running events. While dynamic stretching has not been subject to similar testing, it is a possible alternative. The evidence suggests that the best warmup before a distance-running event may be walking followed by jogging followed by short-distance runs at speeds increasing to race-pace.

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