By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
At the end of my first week of running, my mentor asked if I could touch my toes without bending my knees. Piece of cake: I bent all the way down and rested my palms on the floor. He smiled, and commented that I would become a real runner when I can no longer touch my toes.
I remembered his words several years later during a fitness test. The test consisted of four parts: aerobic endurance, muscle strength, body fat and flexibility. I scored very well on the first three parts, but failed miserably in flexibility. My stretched fingers stubbornly remained eight inches away from my toes.
The motion of running, repeated over many years, strengthens and shortens several rear muscles. The primary victims are the calves, the hamstrings and the lower back muscles. These muscles play a primary role in lifting the feet and moving the runner forward. Exercise physiologists blame shortened muscles for a reduced range of motion, decreased athletic performance and increased risk of injury. Besides running, the aging process contributes to further loss of joint and muscle flexibility.
Many runners and coaches rely on stretching to improve performance and reduce the risk of injury. In the meantime, experts disagree on the benefits and dangers of stretching. While many experts credit stretching with numerous benefits, improper stretching remains the second leading cause of running injuries.
In simple terms, stretching increases the length of a muscle by pulling it past its resting state. A muscle can be stretched in four ways: ballistic, passive, static or dynamic. In ballistic stretching, runners jump and bounce, using momentum to stretch their muscles. This jerking action activates the stretch reflex and causes the muscles to contract rapidly. This sequence of events is supposed to lengthen the muscles. However, ballistic stretching may cause muscle and tendon tears, and has little proven benefit in running.
In passive stretching, a partner applies external pressure to increase the range of the stretch. We commonly see a runner lying on her back, as a teammate pushes her leg toward her face. Passive stretching can be potentially dangerous, and should be avoided by inexperienced athletes.
Static stretching requires a runner to approach the stretching position slowly and gradually to avoid the stretch reflex. Once the stretch position is reached, without causing any discomfort or pain, the runner holds it for several seconds. This stretch-relax sequence is repeated several times.
Dynamic stretching relies on loosening the muscles by putting them gradually through the expected range of motion. Easy jogging before a race, followed by a few stride-outs at the anticipated race pace, prepares the muscles for the anticipated effort. Similarly, running on uneven trails and grass stretches the ankles by increasing the lateral movement of the feet.
Although stretching is most effective when performed several times each week, a minimum of one stretching session per week is sufficient to maintain flexibility. A predominance of coaches and runners believe in stretching before and after every workout. Thus, a typical workout starts with a 10- to 20-minute warm-up, followed by 10-20 minutes of stretching, the main course, a post-workout stretch and a warm-down jog.
Even those runners who believe in the benefits of stretching disagree on its optimal timing. Studies show that morning runners become injured more often than noontime and evening runners. This suggests that it is dangerous to stretch cold muscles. A thorough warm-up before stretching, or postponing stretching till later in the day, may reduce the risk of injury.
Stretching after a race or an intense workout is also controversial. Some experts believe that stretching promotes healing and lactic acid removal from the muscles. Others worry that stretching may aggravate the micro-tears in the muscle fibers caused by the intense workout.
My mentor maintains his flexibility by standing on both sides of the stretching controversy. After winning countless national championships over a 20-year racing career, he is convinced that stretching must be a good idea since everybody does it. He promises to try it someday.
Kamal Jabbour stretches out after his afternoon naps. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at email@example.com.