Sunday, September 4, 2011

Do Stretching and Yoga Help Runners? It's a "Stretch" to Assume They Don't

I enjoy Jeff Galloway's e-newsletters about running. I have a lot of respect for Jeff, and I know that his route to success went through Tallahassee, which leads me to feel a commonality with him.

But I have been unsettled about something Jeff wrote in his April 2011 newsletter. Even though I have not been an Olympic runner (never will be), haven't written a single running book (doubt I ever will), and couldn't run even a half marathon in the time it took him to win a full marathon (2:23:02), here's my non-Olympian, non-published, non-speedy-runner thought.

The passage that I haven't been able to shake mentally was this:

Q&A on Stretching and Cross Training

What stretches should I do?

Surprisingly, I've found that stretching causes many injuries. I don't believe that most runners or walkers benefit from stretching. So I'm going to take away the guilt for not stretching. If you have some stretches that help you and don't produce aches and pains, then do them—but be careful.

What about yoga or pilates?

I hear from many runners every year who are injured in yoga or pilates classes. I don't see any benefit for most runners in these activities. But if you do them (and are not experiencing problems), be careful.

For my response, let me start with yoga. I had never done yoga before I started in the fall of 2010, after a foot injury caused me to take a lengthy break from running (more about my fitness plan during the non-running period here). I bounced around a few types of classes until I determined that core yoga was the best for me at that time. I was doing a lot of reading about how the core drives the rest of the body and creates a strong foundation for the work that the arms and legs have to do. Improving my flexibility, I am convinced, made me less likely to be injured, not more. And one benefit of yoga as it relates to running has nothing to do with physicality and everything to do with focus. My mind can wander (isn't that true for all of us?) and learning to concentrate during a two-minute plank or a one-minute balance pose, keeping my gaze on a specific point, is a discipline that ties into my running when I try to remain on a specific cadence without the benefit of any kind of "beats per minute" audio support in my ear.

As for stretching, there is lots of stretching, it is true, that can be counterproductive (or at least not as helpful to the runner as the runner may hope). Where static stretching can be ineffective, active isolated stretching (AIS) can prevent injury and improve athletic performance when applied correctly. Kim Ortloff explains AIS well on her website here.

To be honest, it isn't Jeff's contention that yoga and stretching don't benefit runners that bothers me. It is the wide reach that he has with beginners and elite alike and my fear that beginners will decide not to learn more about effective stretching or the possibility of incorporating a yoga practice into their fitness plan just because of Jeff's opinion. I know both have been irreplaceable to me in overcoming an injury, being better equipped to fend off injury in the future, and achieving better mental focus.

Poet Antonio Porchia wrote:  "I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received." I doubt Porchia was writing about running, yoga, or stretching, but it's the perfect quote to sum up my post. Jeff knows what he has given us in his writing, and I have no doubt that stance has worked great for him personally and for countless others. But I fear that what many of his readers and students have received is the closing of their minds and hearts to something that can be an important part of their fitness lives, one that prevents injury and opens their minds.

Have stretching and/or yoga been a factor in your running life? Tell me more.......


Mary McManus said...

Thank you so much for posting about this very important subject. Every physical therapist talks about the importance of pre and post run stretching. As for yoga - there are so many yoga for runners classes that if it were not beneficial they would not be filled to capacity. I have found that yoga helps me to be mindful, increases my ability to breathe deeply especially when exerting on those hills and to listen to what my body is telling me. The mind body connection is crucial to the prevention of injuries as so often we can ignore what our bodies are telling us and end up pushing too hard rather than backing down. Yoga improves flexibility and supple yet strong muscles are going to work much more efficiently than tight muscles. Of course with anything, if one does not pay attention or has a vulnerable area or is not doing stretching or poses correctly there can be injury. But the risk of injury from not doing stretching and being mindful is far greater than the risk of injury from stretching and yoga. I have so much respect for Jeff Galloway and what he has added to the world of running but on this one I have to respectfully agree to disagree. Thanks Paula for posting!

Eat To Live said...

I am sure that some people take stretching to the limit. I do not run so I may be way off base here... But, I think a good easy stretching would help limber you up. It is when you go crazy and try to stretch your body to hard that the injuries could occur.

My chiropractor told me to do light stretching every morning before getting out of bed. I find it very helpful. I am sure if I would stretch until it hurts, I would end up with some muscle pulled and hurting.

Unknown said...


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Ann said...

Paula, I have been working with two coaches this season. One gets me through the run/bike/swim and is preparing me for my A race this year. The other is helping me to build a foundation. I believe that stretching/yoga/pilates/strength are all part of building that foundation. I think this question was answered two hastily and would be better answered with a "Stretching and yoga have their place." Because quite honestly anything done wrong or to excess, be it stretching, yoga or running can cause injury. The benefits I have gotten this year for building my foundation and learning to take care of my body with foam rolling and the proper warm up (I do a dynamic warm up) have been immeasurable. Thanks so much for posting this and opening up a dialogue.

Danielle said...

I don't run, but I recently got into Yoga and love it. I don't see how it could NOT help with running. It's a great way to decompress at the end of the day and I've read that it increases lung volumes after time as well. I used to be a competitive gymnast and stretching was obviously integral in our workouts, but even before pure cardio workouts we'd stretch. It's silly to think it wouldn't be beneficial no matter what sport or activity you are engaging in.

Got here via MarfMom's link up!Thanks for sharing.

Maya said...

I don't run, but I was really surprised to read his words. As Graceful Lady said, my PT has always extolled the benefits of stretching. I'm prone to pulling muscles because of my hypermobility and weak connective tissue, but all the Marfan specialists say that certain stretches and certain types of yoga can be extremely beneficial in helping strengthen our muscles. I hope beginner runners will also come across your post!