I've been thinking a lot about stretching. Likely because I recently pulled something in my calf area. And if I’m honest, I’m guessing there could be more than a casual connection between a lazy warm up and the tweak. Anyway, it got me thinking about how much our concept of “stretching” has evolved (anyone remember those VHS tapes from the 90s with leotards and 6” bangs? Just me?). It also got me wondering about the most effective ways to prep and prevent further injury.
So, I consulted an expert. Katie Ferguson is a run coach based in Atlanta, and I’m dragging you into a conversation we had about the importance of stretching, specifically dynamic stretching, prior to a workout.*
Janel Broderick: (Janel) Katie, you’re a big believer in going through a series of dynamic movements before a run. And you posted a video on Instagram (July 16) that highlighted how much the philosophy of stretching has changed over the years. I may be responsible for 17 of that video’s views. But, first, can you clarify the difference between “static” and “dynamic” stretching?
Katie Ferguson: (Katie) Do you remember stretching in middle school gym class? I have a clear memory of my middle school gym class (picture matching white tees and navy blue Umbros) counting to 20 in unison. Those stretches that involve no movement, those are called “static” stretches. Static stretches are held for a certain period of time- usually 20-30 seconds. Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, are repetitive and controlled movements.
Janel: Yep. I remember the old method—lots of tugging on cold hamstrings and grunting as I attempted to touch my toes.
Why the change? What’s more effective about dynamic stretching as opposed to the old-school approach? And why is this best done prior to the workout?
Katie: Ha! Yes, exactly. That sit and reach test always got me.
A copious amount of research has been done regarding injury prevention and athletes. Studies have found that a structured, dynamic stretching program can decrease an athlete’s risk of injury.
Imagine taking a rubber band and pulling it as tight as you can without breaking it. What happens to the rubber band when you let go of it after 20 seconds? It looks loose and wimpy; and that is what happens to our muscles when we hold static stretches before a workout.
Dynamic stretching takes your muscles through repetitive movement, like donkey kicks. This increases blood flow and helps loosen up the joints, preparing them for more demanding movements. A dynamic rubber band stretch isn't held for long allowing the rubber band (muscle) to maintain its strength and elasticity.
Janel: I guess it makes sense that as we learn more about the body, we’re always looking to apply that knowledge in a way that increases our performance and prevents injury.
In your opinion, is there still a role for static stretching? Or is it a personal preference, take it or leave it?
Katie: For sure! Research, as it relates to performance and injury prevention, can be very helpful, but it can also be overwhelming! Static stretching post-workout can help relieve tension and increase circulation. In a perfect world, we would make time for both.
Janel: How many of these exercises, in your opinion, does one need to do in order to be properly warmed up? Is the aim to target a specific number of body parts or just shoot for dynamic movement for a duration of time?
Katie: The goal is to activate the muscles that you plan to move during your workout. I encourage athletes to spend at least ten minutes doing a series of dynamic stretches. That usually means 10-15 leg-focused stretches for runners.
Janel: Wow. That’s longer than I realized. What’s the #1 dynamic stretch you recommend incorporating into one’s warm up?
Katie: If I HAD to pick just one, I would go with leg swings because they engage almost all of the leg muscles. That doesn’t mean you can do just one, Janel.
Janel: BUSTED, I should have known better than to ask a coach about shortcuts. I mentioned that your stretching sequence was posted on your Instagram account @runfetti. How else can people connect with you if they want to learn more?
Katie: I love to connect with other runners, so please reach out if you have any questions! In addition to finding me at @runfetti on Instagram, you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and www.itlcoaching.com.
*Disclosure: I hired Katie as a coach when she joined the staff of ITL Coaching and Performance.