Flexibility Series for Runners: Part 1

Static vs. Dynamic Stretching vs. Foam Rolling: The Great Debate of Sports

As many of us prepare for fall running race season, I wanted to visit this topic to educate my team! This is part one: the why. I love to geek out on the science of things! If you understand it better, you can make better choices. 

The debate over which is best has been researched fairly extensively, and the answer to this question is still highly variable. Personally, I think all fill their purpose, and which you choose and when is largely dependent upon your sport or activity.

Recent research has shown that static stretching before activities can actually decrease your power. Does this make dynamic stretching the answer? Still other scientists swear off stretching altogether, which is advice that hurts my very soul as a physical therapist! 

There are some sports that require extreme flexibility, like gymnastics, that require tremendous flexibility to perform as expected. In this sport, a dynamic warmup like running laps around the mat precedes a prolonged static stretching session to prepare your body for the workout ahead. This formula has remained relatively unchanged since I was a gymnast in the 80’s. 

Speaking of the 80’s, do you remember all of the fitness videos with bouncing stretches? That’s as out of fashion as the leos and tights worn in the videos! We have these mechanoreceptors in our muscles called Golgi tendon organs (GTO’s) that sense stretch. They are not as quick at detecting extreme stretch as you might achieve with a bounce, so it makes it easy to go too far into a stretch when we do so, potentially leading to injury. Just don’t do it! However, GTO’s are also hypothesized to send signals to our central nervous system to encourage our muscles to relax when foam rolling, potentially helping to improve our flexibility as we are breaking up adhesions. 

So, what is best for running? 

Personally, I like to do a few dynamic stretches prior to setting out for a run. This gets my muscles warm and ready to move. I save the majority of my static stretching for after my run. Stretching is important for improving and maintaining your flexibility. This works well in conjunction with foam rolling, which is meant to help break adhesions between the fascia and your muscles, allowing further improvements in your flexibility. Some PT’s recommend foam rolling before your static stretching for this reason.

But what does the science say? 

Static stretching and power:

For power sports such as sprinting, jumping, etc, static stretching prior to the activity can significantly impair your performance. However, further studies have noted that there is no significant decrease in power with shorter static stretches of less than 45 seconds. I interpret this study as it pertains to recreational runners, especially marathon training, that short static stretches integrated into a dynamic warmup prior to a run are likely just fine and can improve your comfort during a run, especially if you have areas that tend to complain consistently. 

Dynamic stretching and running:

A recent study suggests that a short, dynamic stretching routine focusing on all the major lower extremity muscles prior to a run can actually boost performance for endurance runners. Of course, this study was conducted with all male subjects, but does seem to support the notion that dynamic stretching is beneficial. 

Foam rolling:

Although we know foam rolling feels good, does it actually improve performance and flexibility? A meta analysis study seems to prove so. How it works is still largely hypothesized, but foam rolling is believed to help break up adhesions between the fascia and muscle while also encouraging trigger point release. It’s generally advised to roll prior to stretching, as breaking up any adhesions will help the muscles mobilize and stretch more effectively. 

A variety of rollers in my arsenal of tools. I have foam, stick, and foot rollers, and this is only part of my collection!

In summary, the research says:

  • Dynamic stretching before your run is best, with some short static stretches (about 30 seconds) on targeted areas that tend to bother you while running as needed.
  • After your run, foam rolling first will help break up any adhesions prior to stretching.
  • After foam rolling, static stretching will help improve your overall flexibility. 

Obviously, after big group runs, you may not always have your foam roller available to recover in the “right” sequence, but maybe try to incorporate this into your recovery after cross training workouts or later in the day. You may also find a stick roller more portable for these instances when it may not be convenient to get on the ground and foam roll!

Now we know the science behind the why. I will follow up this post with the “hows” of dynamic stretching, foam rolling, and my favorite static stretches!

More in my Flexibility Series for Runners:

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Do you stretch when you exercise? I always say it’s my favorite part of my workout, although I’m admittedly not always the best at practicing what I preach! I vow to get better at this. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy. 

*I offer this advice as a courtesy, and bear no responsibility for injuries incurred if you take my advice. Please consult your doctor if injured.*

Published by annecreates

I am a physical therapist, wife, mom, runner, artist, and vegan. I'm passionate about helping others find wellness, speaking about the human experience, and in fighting for social justice. Assistant Coach for the Sports Backers Marathon Training Team. Current ambassador for: Boco Gear, SaltStick, SPIbelt, Goodr, Noxgear, and Switch4Good.

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