Ok, you’ve heard “don’t stretch before a run” for multiple reasons, but if you’re not supposed to stretch, what should you do? The answer lies in exciting the nervous system. Unless you’re a weirdo and hop out of bed into a trance, you’ll likely fall into a larger group of individuals who wake up groggy and borderline incoherent. Personally, I make it a point to ask my wife what day it is before deciding if I can smash my hand into my phone to snooze for three minutes. Running early? Forget about it. Any pace feels labored. It can take a few hours for my nervous system to fire on all cylinders. If you have trouble waking up for early runs you know exactly what I’m talking about. A 7am start at the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2013 left me struggling until mile 7 when I finally settled in and felt comfortable. The same can be said for runners who take the first mile to ease into their run–time to warm up. Static stretching is the equivalent of flipping the ‘groggy’ switch. It’s believed to decrease your neural activity into the muscle and put it to sleep.
It’s pointless to discuss to the muscular system without pairing it with your nervous system. You should always refer to it together: your neuromuscular system. Feeling soft or sluggish for early runs is likely due to a nervous system that is not fully awake. So back to the question: “If we shouldn’t stretch before we run, what should we do?” — The answer lies in waking your nervous system.
The truth behind stretching
I’m not going to beat the dead horse here. Static stretching has been proven throughout multiple research studies to decrease strength and power production with a detrimental effect on muscle performance during both explosive and endurance activities. Static stretching is what you typically think of when you hear about slow, held stretches lasting 10 to 30 seconds. There’s no doubt that static stretching can improve tissue length, but do we really want to shut muscles off prior to an event? Heck, no. Multiple researchers have cited decreased neural activation as a cause for residual weakness following static stretching. Your goal shouldn’t be to make your muscles groggy before competition. You’ll want to blow the war horn and call everyone to battle. You’ll be looking to rev the engine per say as you’re waiting for the gun fire.
Calling the Alarm
Think of a warm up as wakening your nervous system, calling on your ‘flight or fight’ response. The stimulation of your nervous system will wake you up and prepare your body for competition. Blood flow will increase and you’ll become hyperalert. In theory, a warm up program that enhances neural activity will prepare your body for the forces associated with running. It may be theoretical, but Olsen et al found that athletes performing a dynamic warm up were significantly less likely to suffer knee and ankle injuries (1). Unlike a static stretching program, a dynamic warm up doesn’t compromise strength but is believed to increase readiness for activity through neural activation and body awareness.
A warm up is just that: warming up. I suggest spending as little as a few minutes working through some dynamic lunging and balance activities. Master runners know this better than anyone else. They’ll often spend the better part of a mile ‘waking up’ and settling in before hitting the accelerator. Be on the look out for our upcoming videos on a customized warm up routine when we launch our online store in the next few months!
1. Odd-Egil Olsen, Grethe Myklebust, Lars Engebretsen, Ingar Holme, Roald Bahr. BMJ. 2005 February 26; 330(7489): 449.