What does it mean to you to warm up before exercising? How does stretching fit into this picture? A quick trip to Central Park will reveal that for most runners warming up and stretching are the same thing. The two have traditionally been linked when it comes to preparing for exercise, but are they the same? Let Base Physical Therapy help you take a deeper look.
What is stretching?
Let's start by defining stretching. When you stretch your hamstring for example, by reaching forward to touch your toes, you are simply holding your muscle at its maximum length. If you feel that slight burn and maintain that position for some time you are stretching your hamstring. The function of this movement is to help increase the range of movement around the hip and knee joint. Once this happens you are able to move both your hip and knee to a greater degree. In other words, you are increasing the flexibility of that muscle. This is called static stretching because you are holding your limb in a static position, as opposed to moving while you stretch.
How are flexibility and injury linked?
To prevent injury, it is important that you have the right amount of flexibility to reach the positions that are required by the sport. For example, a runner should have enough hamstring flexibility to be able to extend the leg far enough to allow for a comfortable stride. Stretching also helps even out muscle length imbalances, which if left untreated, have been shown to increase risk of injury.
So, if there are clear benefits to stretching, why doesn't it prevent injury? The answer is timing. When you stretch matters. While stretching is important and has benefits, specifically using static stretching as a warm up to running does not prevent your from incurring an injury during that run. In a number of studies, pre-exercise static stretching has either shown no difference in injury rates, or if anything, shown a trend toward a higher injury rate in people who stretch. This may be related to evidence of poorer muscle-strength endurance, balance and reaction time observed post-stretching. When it comes to performance, it has been shown that static stretching performed before the activity actually reduces your muscles ability to generate strength and power.
Based on scientific literature, the best time for static stretching is either after a run, or on a day when you won't be running at all. Taking the time to stretch on this type of schedule has a number of benefits. Aside from improvements in flexibility, regular stretching over the long term can improve your muscle strength and power.
How should I warm up?
The purpose of a warm-up is to physically prepare an individual for exercise. This may or may not involve stretching specifically. For distance runners in particular, a warm-up should focus on increasing core body and muscle temperature, increasing oxygen uptake and decreasing muscle and joint stiffness. These factors have been shown to not only prevent injury, but also to improve muscle strength performance.
How do you do all that in a warm up?
For distance runners, an ideal warm up should last about 10 minutes and should finish no more than five minutes before the running session or race starts. The intensity should be enough to elevate body temperature, but not fatigue you before the race . Beginner runners can estimate this to be about 4-6 out of 10 point scale, where 10 is your absolute maximum effort. Intermediate runners may need to boost their intensity level to about a 7 out of 10 on the scale. One way to do this is perform a series of dynamic stretches. A dynamic stretch is a functional whole body movement that progressively decreases stiffness in the muscle, increases blood flow to the muscle and increases your heart rate. We'll go through some practical ideas for this in our next blog post.
So don't confuse a warm up for a stretching session. Understanding the distinction could be the difference between suffering from a running injury and staying healthy. Static stretching is important to do over the long term, but when it's done immediately pre-run, it can actually put you at a greater risk of injury. Restrict your static stretching to post run or on rest days. To get warmed up, try a dynamic warm-up routine instead, since it's more likely to prevent injury.
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Jeffreys, M.S. "Warm-up and Stretching." In Essentials of Strenth Training and Conditioning edited by T.R. Baechle, Earle, R.W. United States, 2008.
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