First, let’s understand the two most common types of stretches. Static stretching involves putting a muscle on stretch and sustaining that hold for a period of time. Research has documented a hold time from 15 seconds up to several minutes. Dynamic stretching occurs when you repeatedly move a muscle group through its range of motion while feeling a stretch at end range. Examples of dynamic stretches are walking lunges or straight leg kicks.
Despite variations in the research, there are common themes. One is that static stretching prior to activity can lead to deficits in performance. These impairments are mainly documented with activities involving power, high velocities, and agility, such as jumping or sprinting.
Collective data are currently inconsistent regarding the effects of static stretching on steady-state endurance running, as documented results have shown everything from significant impairment to non-significant change to significant improvements.
The benefits of static stretching include increases in joint range of motion and increases in muscle flexibility. On the other hand, dynamic stretching prior to activity has collectively shown to either facilitate performance, or at the very least, have no adverse affect on performance.
Based on the best available evidence and clinical expertise, my recommendations are as follows:
If you plan to start an endurance race at your race pace, begin with an active warm-up including dynamic stretching. This may include a light jog, running in place, or jumping jacks to get your blood pumping. Next, include some dynamic stretches such as those given above. This prepares the muscles for activity. Then hit the pavement and go the distance!
If you are unable to warm up prior to the race, start off slower than race pace, then gradually increase the pace. This will help to prevent injury and maintain performance versus starting at race pace cold. Statically stretch after the race as a cool-down. This will increase joint range of motion, re-establish muscle length to tightened muscles, and decrease delayed onset muscle soreness in the days following a long race.
Andrea Minsky, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery’s Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and her doctorate in Physical Therapy from Rutgers University. Andrea has certifications as a USA Triathlon Coach and in Active Release Technique (ART). Her interests lie in orthopedic and sports-related musculoskeletal conditions. She believes in injury prevention and strives to keep her patients active and safe.