Improper stretching before workouts can lead to serious injury

Kyle Kranz

Kyle KranzRunning on the white Line

As an ultra marathoner and triathlete I spend way too much time at the Wellness Center. One of the most common activities I notice is how people warm up and stretch incorrectly before exercising.

The most common warm up is a couple very brief leg stretches, five minutes of light cardio, and then the individual jumps into the workout. Sometimes even the few minutes of cardio are skipped. I used to do the same thing, but with a bit of research have changed my ways contrary to what I was taught in grade school gym class.

Behind too much mileage and too much speedwork, improper warm ups and stretching are the third leading cause of injury in runners. A short bout on an elliptical is a great idea, since it is low impact and uses the legs as well as arms to slowly increase blood flow throughout the muscles. There are many physiological reasons why a light warm up should never be skipped. This with proper stretching done at the beginning or end of a workout may result in beneficial health results.

There are multiple types of stretches. Most common, Passive-Static uses force to stretch a body part to the peak of it’s range or farther, which is the reason it may cause rather than prevent injury, and decrease strength, power, and agility. An example of this is the classic sit and reach.

Another common form of stretching is Ballistic, which is more rapid and uses momentum to stretch a limb beyond it’s range of motion, such as swinging a leg from side to side. This is the worst form in that the rapidity of the movements triggers muscle tension, rather then relaxation. This may result in micro tears and inflammation in the muscles from over stretching.

The best option is Static-Active stretching. This is a slow, deliberate, and light 10-30 second stretch promoting relaxation of the stretched muscle. An example of this is to lay on your back and lift a leg up straight in front of you. The tension of your agonist quadriceps contracting causes your antagonist hamstrings to relax via reciprocal inhibition. With a hand, bring the leg up to a point where you can feel tightness, let go, and hold it for 10-20 seconds.

There is much research backing up the dangers of incorrect stretching. A study by the U.S. Army on recruits found that the most and the least flexible individuals were more than twice as likely to be injured compared to moderately flexible recruits. Another example is the hamstring muscle, the most stretched, yet most injured muscle in the lower body. Also a paper published in Research in Sports Medicine reviewed previously published research on static stretching and found “strong evidence that routine application of static stretching does not reduce overall injury rates.”

And for the fellow endurance enthusiasts out there, here’s some interesting info. Two studies, one published in The International Journal of Sports Medicine and one from the University of North Carolina, on the subject of running economy and flexibility, found an inverse relationship between flexibility and running economy. The two studies concluded that “stiffer musculotendinous structures reduced the aerobic demand of sub maximal running by facilitating a greater elastic energy return during the shortening phase of the stretch-shortening cycle,” and that the lack of flexibility “minimized the need for muscle stabilizing activity” while running.

But I am not going to leave out the weight lifters looking for either mass or pounds added to the bar. Studies have also shown that stretching before performing strength and power exercises will reduce power and thus the amount of weight lifted. Of course you still want that precious range of motion, but stretch after performing the lifts when the muscles are warmed up.

Now am I telling you not to stretch? It’s up to you (but please do not skip the 5-10 minute warm up). There are many studies out there that show a positive relationship between flexibility and injury prevention, especially with iliotibial band injury. Also flexibility is key in many sports such as swimming and football, that put the human body through movements we were not designed for. I found some great examples and put them at so you do not have to go searching for them yourself. However if you have not done much stretching in the past, there is no need to feel bad and start a routine. As Woody Harrelson said in Zombie Land, ” You ever see a lion limber up before it takes down a gazelle?”

Kyle Kranz is a senior nutrition major at SDSU. Contact him at [email protected].

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