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Stretching vs. Mobilizing: What Works and What Is a Waste of Time

BY Caitlin Glenn Sapp

Is it time to cut out stretching from you pre and/or post workout routine and incorporate something new instead?

It seems our society is stuck in a rut when it comes to flexibility. You don’t need much flexibility to run, in fact, you need very little flexibility to move fluidly through a running motion. Additionally, there is no research to support the claim that more flexibility decreases injury rates, promotes healing, or improves the mechanics of running. In some cases, increased flexibility can actually create problems.

Working Out the Kinks

As endurance athletes, we continuously break down our bodies through training and racing which causes adhesions in our muscles from excessive scaring. These adhesions are what we commonly identify as “trigger points,” “kinks,” or “knots” along the muscle. It is much more likely for athletes to experience muscular discomfort due to a kink, rather than muscle-length related tightness. Additionally, just because a muscle may feel tight does not mean the tightness is uniform throughout the entire muscle. For greater muscle pain relief, athletes should focus on specific pain points rather than stretching out the entire afflicted muscle group.

Think of it as washing your car in your driveway with a hose. The hose kinks and you lose the flow of water. Are you going to pull and tug on the hose? Or manipulate the section of the hose to get the kink out? 

Luckily, the fitness industry has slowly adapted to this understanding, and foam rolling and trigger point balls have become more popular. The goal of these tools is to find an area of resistance in the tissue and release it. This is why when you foam roll along your quadriceps, some areas may feel smooth while others are uncomfortable or even painful.

Let’s try this for ourselves. While seated in a chair, run your thumb along the quadriceps looking for an area of soreness. Press your thumbs into the sore area and hold there. Then straighten and bend your knee back and forth. You will feel the tissue gliding under your thumbs. This tissue gliding technique works to realigning the fibers that have undergone injury due to excessive scarring. You can do this in any area of the body with the same principles we just practiced; find an area of soreness, apply pressure, move the joint below the muscle back and forth to break up the knots.

Why Not Stretch Too?

Now do understand, not all stretching is bad and I’m not arguing that you should never stretch. If you do have a tissue length limitation that affects your required range of motion for running, then stretching is appropriate. If you do need to stretch, always do so post-run. If your body needs a muscular warm-up so you feel loose and flexible, try a dynamic warm-up. This can include a light jog with form-focused drills, jumps and quick, dynamic stretches. These dynamic movements change the perception of the muscle rather than the length; causing the individual to feel more prepared to run.

That being said, one downside to stretching is the amount of time it takes to see benefits. Research shows it takes 3 minutes per day of stretching, 4-6 times weekly, for at least 10 weeks before the length of the tissue is changed. Whereas tissue mobilization techniques can be performed for 3 minutes a day for only 2-3 weeks before there is a relevant change in the tissue

The next time you go to stretch, out of routine or since you’ve been engrained to do so, think about mobilizing the tissue instead. Or the next time you feel stiff, try starting your run session with a dynamic warm-up followed by tissue mobilization techniques after you run. Smooth, supple tissue readily accepts the loads we place on it. Sometimes our bodies just need a little help recovering and realigning so we can get the most out of our sport.

About Caitlin Glenn Sapp

Dr. Caitlin Glenn Sapp is the founder of Crew Racing and Rehab, a performance coaching and physical therapy company. She holds her Doctorate of Physical Therapy as well as a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science. She also holds certifications as a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and American College of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer. Dr. Sapp is a seven-time Ironman finisher, which includes the Ironman World Championships, and is a multiple-time USA Triathlon All-American. She takes great interest in educating the industry, from athletes to coaches, on how to stay injury-free while performing at a high level. For more, visit Crewracing.org or email Caitlin at caitlin@crewracing.org.