When it comes to stretching, I think I’m pretty typical of many runners. If I’m feeling good, I either don’t stretch or do only minimal stretching. When I have a nagging injury or sore muscles, I’m suddenly much more committed to a stretching routine.
Given the many runners you see stretching before a race, though, the topic is surprisingly controversial.
Many of us were taught to stretch before any exercise. But the forms of stretching many people learned in PE class — bending over to touch your toes or leaning against a wall to stretch your calf muscles — are not recommended before exercise, said Mark Rieger, director of sports medicine at Carle.
Such static stretches are held for a period of time. Studies in the last few years have suggested static stretches before exercise reduce the power of muscles to perform.
That’s because of a response in the muscles called reciprocal inhibition, Rieger said.
“When you stretch a muscle too far, it will tighten up to tell you not to stretch,” he said.
A study by USA Track & Field, the results of which were released in 2010, involved a three-month clinical trial of 2,700 runners. Half were instructed to perform a series of static stretches before running and the other half did not stretch. The study found no difference in the risk of injury for those stretching before running versus those that did not stretch. 
However, the American College of Sports Medicine has reported that static stretches of short duration — less than a minute — did not alter muscle strength prior to exercise.
Dynamic stretches have been recommended recently as the way to go. Rieger advises doing dynamic stretches, which involve continuous movement and take the muscles through their range of motion.
Rieger said dynamic stretches pump blood into the muscles, get the muscles and tendons warmed up, and get nerve endings stimulated for activity. Dynamic stretches include leg swings forward, back and side to side; walking lunges; arm circles; body weight squats; and trunk twists.
Rieger still advocates static stretching after exercise, when the muscles are warm and more receptive to being elongated. He said younger athletes can benefit because their bones tend to grow faster than muscles and tendons, making them tight. And older athletes lose the elasticity in their muscles and tendons as they age, decreasing their range of motion and making them more prone to muscle strains and sprains. Joint tightness can lead to imbalances that prevent muscles from working as efficiently as possible, he added.
Duane Schlabach of Monticello has always been a big advocate of stretching, and he does a stretching routine every night before going to bed. It makes it easier to get warmed up after rolling out of bed for a morning run, he said.
“As a runner, the more flexible you are through the hips, the less likely you are to get hurt,” Schlabach said. “Once (muscles) get tight, you’re probably going to injure a muscle in another area, but that is related to your hips being tight.”
His philosophy: If he has an injury, he’ll be able to find some kind of stretch or strength training that will help.
Schlabach, who has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and develops exercises for pulmonary rehab patients in his job at Kirby Medical Center, feels he gets the most benefit from static stretches. The key, he said, is to relax the muscle so it will elongate more.
It’s also important to focus on the muscle you are trying to stretch, he said, and not on some other aspect of the stretch, such as touching your head or chest to your leg while stretching your hamstrings.
“That’s not what’s important,” he said.
Rieger said those doing static stretches should stretch to the point where there is some discomfort, but no pain.
The American College of Sports Medicine’s most recent recommendations on exercise, from August 2011, state that adults should do flexibility exercises at least two or three days per week to improve range of motion. It states static, dynamic and other forms of stretching are all effective, and that flexibility exercises are most effective when muscles are warm, either after light aerobic activity or a hot bath.
The recommendations include suggestions for static stretches: holding each stretch from 10 to 30 seconds; and repeating each stretch two to four times.
Reports on stretching and whether or not it is beneficial note that different activities require a different range of motion — for example, gymnastics or hurdling versus long-distance running — so stretching prior to exercise is more important for some activities than others. For distance runners, a slow jog prior to a workout may be enough of a warmup.
Another observation Rieger made is that whether a person stretches or not, and the benefits he or she gets from stretching, are individual.
Whatever the science says about stretching, I believe it is good for me, even though I don’t do it often enough. I’m not naturally flexible, and running makes my muscles and joints even tighter. I feel better when I stretch regularly.
I’ll see you on a run — right after I stretch.
For information and a demonstration of dynamic stretches, go to http://bit.ly/NqHQ6h .
Photo: Athletic trainer Casey Buchanan oversees dynamic stretching by Ryan Hale of Champaign at Carle Sports Medicine in Urbana. Photo by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette.