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Ask the Doctor: Should I Stretch Before I Run?

It's time for our weekly "Ask the Doctor" series. Run Charlotte Run is partnering with physicians and physical therapists from OrthoCarolina to answer any questions that our readers have about injuries, injury prevention and running healthy. If you have a question you'd like to submit for the series, please leave a comment below or email me at jdecurtins@charlotteobserver.com.

Today's question covers a hot topic...stretching and running. Should you stretch before? Or after? Or at all? And what kind of stretching. We got some insight from orthepedic specialist and certified strength and conditioning coach Chris Gabriel. Be sure to check out his response below and we'll be posting a video soon demonstrating what a dynamic warm up looks like.

I have heard that I shouldn't stretch before a run because I can irritate or even pull a muscle if I overstretch it, but my body feels so tight sometimes. What is the best way to stretch prior to running or should I even be stretching at all?

Certain kinds of stretching can have some benefits before running if you lack real flexibility, but there are other ways to improve mobility and performance.

First, think about why your muscle is “tight”.  Muscles can be tight from habitual postures during the day, or from an imbalance that causes them to overwork and seem tight. Sometimes we end up yanking on or forcing the muscle in an attempt to stretch it into submission, but that may not be the best way to manage it. One way to relieve tight muscles is to improve your postures throughout the day, especially the way you sit. You can be assessed by a physical therapist to determine which muscles are tight and which muscles are weak and how exercise programs or therapy can help.

But when it comes to running, a dynamic warm-up can be a better option than the longer-duration, passive stretching we are accustomed to. Movements such as skipping, carioca, high knee marching and dynamic leg swings can all prepare the body for exercise without risking injury or overstretching. Foam rolling, or other forms of self soft tissue mobilization can also bring blood flow to the area and can loosen up muscles.  In general, after your workout is the best time to do some longer duration, passive stretching, especially if you tend to be less flexible.

Chris Gabriel, OCS (Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist), CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), practices physical therapy in OrthoCarolina’s Ballantyne office. Chris and his team treat a range of patients for orthopedic and sports medicine needs.  He enjoys working with various local high school, college, and professional sports teams.

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