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Are you stretching for the Comox Valley Half Marathon?

With hundreds of walkers and runners in this weekend’s annual Comox Valley Half Marathon Sunday, March 24 stretch or not to stretch that is the question—the question that one of my running clients asked me.

She is a runner and a few of her running partners were doing yoga.  She wondered if added flexibility would make her a better runner or prevent injuries.  The short answer to her question is, “it depends.”

I hate fence-sitting, but the sad truth is that after dozens of studies and years of debate, medical science is still divided as to whether stretching helps, harms, or does anything at all for performance or injury rates.

On one hand, a study of 100 people revealed that the least flexible expended 10 to 12 per cent less energy than the most flexible when running at the same pace.  This may seem counter intuitive, but consider how muscles work.  Muscles convert metabolic energy into mechanical work by pulling on bones through tendons.  In a sport like running, stiffer muscles and tendons mean that less energy is wasted in this conversion process.  Would you rather lift a weight with a bungy cord or a steel-braided cable—both will do the job, and one will be easier than the other.

On the other hand, in my practice I see many runners who suffer injuries as a result of muscle imbalances. Tight muscles can alter alignment and increase wear and tear on joints, ligaments, and muscles.  In the same way that a car with poor alignment will wear out tires, a poorly aligned runner will wear through hips, knees, and feet.  Changing a tire, however, is easier than a knee replacement.

If you do choose to stretch, I recommend stretching after running rather than before.

David Pechter is a physiotherapist at Rehab in Motion.

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