Updated: Oct 20, 2020
We’ve all grown up being forced to stretch before exercising in our PE classes because it was thought that it would prevent injury, but now that we’re adults, the “current research” shows us that stretching may not be the biz in injury prevention.
An older article, published in 2001, by Ian Shrier (who, btw, has dedicated multiple years of his life to research disproving the benefits of stretching) states, “Although increased compliance is not the equivalent of stretching, no basic science research shows that an increase in compliance is associated with a greater ability to absorb energy.” Or more simply put, there is no scientific evidence to show that a stretchier muscle is less likely to be injured.
Hyoung-Kil Park et al published an article in 2018 concluding that, “Simple stretching during warm-ups appears to have no effect on variables of exercise physiology in nonathletes who participate in routine recreational sport activities.”
However, almost anyone we talk to will still say that they should stretch before exercising, and this usually comes from empirical evidence or their own experiences. So if it doesn’t do anything (based on people’s experience) but it doesn’t really do something (based on research), what’s going on here?
The answer lies in something called neuromuscular connection. This is a fancy term for the connection between the brain and muscles. When we stretch, we put ourselves in different positions of prolonged hold in order to stretch the muscles and joints. BUT, what we are actually doing is holding a position that allows the neuromuscular connection to build and become stronger. This connection is like electricity running through a lightbulb. If the connection is strong, the lightbulb can shine brightly and at full strength, but if the connection is weak, the light may shine dimly. When we hold in certain positions, we allow this connection from the brain to our muscles to build and prepare our bodies for activity which is why the act of stretching may make us feel more prepared during exercise.
So, instead of stretching, here are a few exercises I do that are designed to prepare the body’s neuromuscular connection for running. Check out our video which demonstrates each exercise and our descriptions below:
1. Wavy Gravy
One of the most important aspects of running is breathing. This is a good warm-up exercise to begin with, as it strengthens the breathing muscle, the diaphragm. By moving the air up and down, we not only allow the diaphragm to practice expanding and contracting, but also, the movement through your torso frees up any tight areas that may be built up from sitting at the office all day. With your torso free, your ribs, organs, and muscles can move and expand to allow full utilization of your lungs while you run.
2. Arch and Sag
Running is difficult without creating motion in the spine. Because the body is so good at adapting, we may not even realize that parts of our spine lack motion. This exercise helps us first locate those tight areas and then mobilize them so that we don’t compensate throughout the rest of our body to make up for that motion. If you’ve done yoga, this exercise is very similar to cat camel but we add an extra component to laser-focus the mobilization. Running is a very mobile exercise especially for your spine. In a healthy running form, your spine needs to rotate evenly every single step. Arch and sag allows your spine to move more freely while running
3. Lift Off
Finally, our first prolonged hold and neuromuscular exercise. Now that our spine is feeling refreshed and the mobility is restored from arch and sag, we can wake up some of these segmental stabilizers in our back. These muscles are called multifidi and they really help to maintain stability in each vertebra. This exercise is great to prepare the spine for running because, with each step, the spine needs to prevent a twisting motion which is exactly what the multifidi muscles do.
4. Praying Mantis
Next, we have another neuromuscular exercise. This exercise works out almost the entire lower chain and specifically two muscles: hamstring and soleus. The hamstring is a key muscle as both a support for posture and a stabilizer for the hip and knee. The soleus is the primary stabilizer of the ankle and with the most weight being absorbed by the foot and ankle, the soleus must be strong. The proper way to do this exercise is to avoid using the quad muscle. Try to lift using the hamstring instead of straightening the knee with the quadriceps. Though running is a full-body workout, the legs are required to propel you forward and without stability, there is no propelling.
5. Hip Hinging
This final exercise helps to maintain spinal stability through different ranges of hip motion. When you push off of your back leg in running, the hip can go into extension or the back can go into extension to accomplish the same goal. If we consider how many steps we take during a run, that’s a lot of back bending that we do if the hip isn’t doing it for us. This exercise trains our brain to utilize our hips while keeping our spine in neutral. This is a must before any run.
All this being said, the biggest reason people don’t stretch or warm-up before exercise is laziness. Don’t let your laziness win when it comes to taking care of your physical health. Now that you know that it’s not the stretching that prevents injury but rather the neuromuscular connection, get motivated to do a solid warm-up. Spending 10 minutes to warm up before a jog will help to prevent years of pain and keep you exercising and healthy throughout your life.