Saturday, March 22, 2008

NY Times Article on Stretching: Helpful or Hurtful?

The New York Times published this article on stretching: To Stretch or Not to Stretch? The Answer Is Elastic on March 13, 2008. In it the author, Gina Kolata, says, "The truth is that after dozens of studies and years of debate, no one really knows whether stretching helps, harms, or does anything in particular for performance or injury rates."

Dr. Julie Gilchrist in a study published in the March 2004 issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise" asserts that research still can't answer the question as to whether stretching helps or hurts. She does say that, "If your goal is to prevent injury stretching does not seem to be enough. Warming up, though, can help. If you start out by moving through a range of motions that you’ll use during activity, you are less likely to be injured."

This is a process a bit different from stretching and something that I have been exploring recently through Z-Heath joint mobility drills and the Ageless Mobility routine I have been using. It also corresponds to the the dynamic Flexibility exercises I have learned and am trying based on the book "Brain Training for Runners". Author Matt Fitzgerald showcases some of the drills here.

In the NY Times article Dr. Gilchrist also mentioned that in her review of published papers, "Every one of the handful of studies that concluded that stretching prevented injuries included warm-ups with the stretches." I can assume that I am on the right track with some of the things I am now trying.

Another doctor quoted in the article Dr. Malachy McHugh, who is the director of research at the Lenox Hill Hospital Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma in Manhattan maintains that while flexibility is important to many sports (think gymnastics) he says, "Distance runners do not benefit from being flexible. The most efficient runners, those who exerted the least effort to maintain a pace, were the stiffest." According to Matt Fitzgerald stiffness is one of the key characteristics of good running technique as it allows you to spring as you run.

Other anecdotal evidence is presented in the article: a running coach who no longer advocates stretching and a doctor who maintains that stretching, "Weakens performance and makes an injury more likely." and then says, "Stretching the hamstring muscle, for example, teaches the muscle to relax when the knee is fully extended. But that is not what a runner needs. Instead, runners need to have their hamstrings stiff and activated when the knees are extended."

In the end we have to find out what works for us. I know that I steer clear of cookie cutter books and articles that advocate the same basic stretches and stretching routines. You know the stretches, the ones that "everyone seems to do so that must mean that is what runners need to do". A few years ago, before running the Boston Marathon, a TV news station was doing a profile on me. They wanted some clips of me running and then asked me to go into stretching poses so they could have a few more clips. I had no real poses for them but knew they wanted the old "calf stretch" and the "hamstring" stretch and tried to please them but felt silly as this wasn't the routine I used at the time. I didn't have a rope and was used to doing "active-isolated" stretching at the time. I gave them the poses they wanted, but felt a bit silly pretending that these stretches were important to my routine.

To keep running decades after I first started, I know I need more that just stretching to keep up my longevity in the sport. I believe I am headed in a positive direction. However I just want to get out there and run. Presently my body feels good and balanced. The drills I am doing seem to work. Unfortunately I haven't been able to run much the past two weeks. I got a twinge in my right calf that I am being careful with. It is the third time in the past year it has happened in the same area. Last year I had a horrible Boston Marathon with my hips barking up a storm. I had been using "posture control insoles" for the 3 months before the race. but forgot to bring them to the start. My feet ran "naked" and after 10 miles my hips were going crazy from the change in positioning. Plus I hadn't run for the 11 days before the race due to bronchitis.

It took a couple of weeks to get my hips sorted out after that and while having my best workout with everything clicking and feeling smooth, my calf seized up. It took a few weeks before I could run again. Then in the summer, I ran the Cigna 5k in a brand new pair of those same insoles but with a bigger lift in them. That was fine, except that I someone went home with my car keys by mistake and when all was said and done, (my home phone wasn't working) I ended up walking 23 miles home. I intended to run but taking the insoles out of my shoe was stressing the calf again. Leaving them in was not comfortable either. I was wearing a very thin soled minimalistic shoe, the Puma H-street, so I just walked and walked and walked. That calf injury didn't last long and I was able to do the Falmouth Road Race 3 days later with a newer type of insole in my shoe. The Aline insole distracted my feet enough that the calf was ok and I felt decent while running. I thought it was an interesting concept and used them for a couple of months before going back to no insoles at all in my shoes.

This present calf injury came on all of a sudden while I was running in close to perfect form for me. My hips were lining up well, my knee felt fine and I was getting good ankle movement all due to the drills I have been using. I think that this put more weight and stress on the muscles of my calf, and the altered positioning re injured this area. I have run workouts of 4-5 miles on it but there is still a tender knot there. I am keeping away from stretching it!

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