How Flexible Should Runners Really Be?
Flexibility is said to improve posture, body alignment, and efficiency of movement. Although many runners are not very flexible at all, most coaches believe that some level of flexibility can help with injury prevention.
When discussing flexibility for runners, athletes tend to be divided into two camps: those who religiously do stretching to improve and/or maintain flexibility and those who feel it is unnecessary.
Is one smarter than the other?
Why Being Flexible is Good for Runners
If you are wondering why flexibility is important, you are in the right place.
- Improved Posture: Individuals who are more flexible tend to have better posture as the body is better aligned.
- Better Balance: With improvements in posture and flexibility often comes better balance.
- Less Injury: A strong and flexible body is less prone to injury because some athletes with tight muscle groups are more susceptible to muscle strains.
- Managing Existing Problems: Stretching and working on flexibility can also help keep existing problems or injuries at bay.
- Soreness reduction: Tight muscles and connective tissues ache more than flexible ones.
Are Those Advantages Absolute Truths for All Runners?
Here’s the thing, and you have probably figured this out by now. There are very few absolute truths in running, and stretching falls into that category. Many runners never, ever stretch and keep from getting injured.
Also, there is research to back the claim that in some studies, the more limber runners are not the best runners.
As you run and progress in your training, certain muscles and tendons in your legs will naturally tighten. Specifically, a runner’s calf muscles tend to be fairly rigid.
Let’s talk about how your flexibility (or lack thereof) impacts your running. Try to imagine the form and function of your lower leg as you run.
When you step down, your feet, ankles, glutes, upper body, lower back, quads, calves and knees all soften to absorb the impact, compressing like a big spring. During the forward motion, though, that stored up potential energy is released to move your body weight.
Can you see where having limited flexibility of those muscles could be seen as an advantage? But can you also see where if the spring is way too tight, it also won’t have the desired results?
On the other hand, if you have tight hip flexors, quadriceps and gluteus, you won’t be able to lift your legs and get the turnover you want.
Does Flexibility Affect Running Speed?
Truth be told, this is also dependent on the runner and how flexible (or inflexible) he or she is.
Looking at some of the research out there, the tendency might be to jump in the other direction and conclude that it’s actually better to be stiffer. While that may seem like pretty great news for all of those runners who hate stretching, science is rarely that straightforward.
Further research has found that stiff tendons around the knees increase running performance while stiff plantar flexors actually decrease performance.
The issue of running efficiency, running economy and flexibility, then, isn’t just a simple matter of whether or not it’s better to be more flexible. It all really comes down to which tendons and muscles you’re talking about.
For one runner improving flexibility could absolutely yield gains in speed. However, another runner might not find that to be true.
How Do Runners Increase Flexibility?
One interesting tidbit is that working on flexibility as part of a strength training regiment seems to be very helpful for most athletes.
Incorporating dynamic stretching and certain types of movements into a training program helps athletes overall. In other words, this is not the pre-workout stretching routine from the old school gym classes of our youth.
If you are looking to increase your flexibility, you should be doing so in a deliberate manner.
- Warm Up Properly: Failure to warm up before pre-run is a sure way to injury.
- Dynamic Warm Up: For the most part, you can forget the static stretches you were taught years ago. There are many drills you can do as part of an active warmup that help you get more flexible.
- Strength Training: When you strength train, put focus on increasing your range of motion. This is one way to become more flexible.
How Often Should a Runner Stretch?
If you’re still wondering why flexibility is important, remember that the answer is not black and white. For most runners, the amount of stretching they need could be drastically different than of another athlete. And why shouldn’t this make sense?
There are many running-related things that vary from one person to the next. Take shoes for example.
I get about 300 miles out of a pair, as do most runners. However, I have a friend who gets close to 1,000 out of each pair of shoes and he is shockingly injury-free. See what I mean?
As a coach with almost 30 years of experience, I firmly believe that all runners should engage in some type of dynamic warmup unless they are starting the run very easy and gently warming up the body that way.
If you are looking to get any type of speed out of a workout, a dynamic workout is the best way to prepare your body for the task at hand. By its very nature, this involves active stretching.
Beyond that, athletes should do some type of flexibility work on strength days. As stated before, you can increase your range of movement while you lift.
Another excellent way to work on flexibility is to practice yoga on rest days. A day or two of yoga each week will not only help you get flexible it is also likely to improve your mindfulness and lower your stress level.
The Importance of Listening to YOUR Body
The most important takeaway here is that, above all, you need to listen to your body. There are some runners who need to stretch way more often.
If you are prone to injury in a certain part of your body and you have been given stretches to keep that risk of injury away, stay vigilant to those. Don’t second guess what is working for you.
For me, the post-run stretch is far more important than anything I do before I run. Knowing my body as I do, my hamstrings tend to need some attention post-workout.
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