Ask the Coaches

Let’s Stretch it Out: Warming up

By: Robert Jones

Hello UVRC and welcome to the first installment of UVRC Labs where we dive into the science, myths, and facts of running. There is a lot of information out there about best running practices, some of it is good, some of it seems to be just flat out wrong, and a decent amount of it is told with an ulterior motive. But here we strive to dig into the actual validity of this information and bring you at least a somewhat more informed opinion. Please note that whatever is provided here is the opinion of a non-medical professional and should not be treated as medical advice.

One of the most debated and dare I say controversial topics in the running community is the effectiveness of incorporating stretching into your warm up (I'll talk about cooling down in a different article because there is just too much for one). I say controversial because there is not widespread enough evidence that has conclusively proven the effectiveness of pre run stretches or warmups in either the positive or the negative. And also if you were to talk to 30 runners in our own community and asked them their experience you’d probably get 30 different answers ranging from “I probably should stretch more but I don’t really notice a difference either way” to “If I don’t do my full warm up routine, it's like I’m running in a swamp”. The likely reasons and contributing factors for this disparity amongst runners are numerous and complex but include factors such as age, level of exertion, body type, and diet to name a few. Suffice to say, the reason it has been so difficult to arrive at anything conclusive is the simple truth that everyone’s body is different. And also the effectiveness of a pre workout stretch will depend a lot on what activity you are doing and how long you’re doing it. So really from the get go you can see that if you were trying to demonstrate how effective stretching was that you’d be drowning in so many variables that a conclusive study would seem dang near impossible (unless of course you had a couple hundred willing participants in some kind of organized group or something….). And also one could very reasonably ask the question; “since we’ve been doing it for generations and yet nothing has been proven either way, does it matter?”, to which I would answer “probably?”.

To get some insight on this, I read a recent paper (1) that set about addressing the question “Should I stretch during my warm up and if so, what kind?”.

I chose this paper in particular because it looked at recreational runners and I believe many studies on the subject typically use athletes that are professionally trained or military, which have more caveats than could reasonably be applied to the majority of our running community. That being said, I’m going to level with you Fam, this paper suffers from the issue that many papers do in regards to drawing conclusions for many by using a sample set of a few. That sample set being a scant 8 cis-gendered males, so immediately take a huge olde spoonful of salt for this one. Also while it isn’t a conflict of interest per se, it is important to state that my bias is of course for doing a full warmup routine including light exercise, dynamic, and static stretches which comes from experience but is not grounded in science. I will however, try to convey the results of the study without letting my bias get in the way and note that I will also cite papers that contrast the findings of this one

Anyway, to summarize the study: it took place under controlled environmental conditions on a treadmill for all the trials. The 8 participants did a familiarization with the setup so they wouldn’t be going in blind and influence their performance. They also did a cardiopulmonary exercise test (CPET) which essentially gives you a gauge of your exercise ability and your VO2 Max (explained). For the study proper, each participant did an exercise routine including static stretching (SS), a routine including dynamic stretching (DS), or a routine with no stretching (NS), in a random order. The routines are as follows.

SS: 10 Minutes running warm up, 5 minutes static stretches, 5 minute rest, 5 minute run at 70% VO2 Max (think roughly 70% of your max effort), speed increased to VO2 Max (100% max effort) and then the subject ran until exhaustion.

DS: 10 Minutes running warm up, 5 minutes dynamic stretches, 5 minute rest, 5 minute run at 70% VO2 Max, speed increased to VO2 Max and then the subject ran until exhaustion.

NS: 15 Minutes running warm up, 5 minute rest, 5 minute run at 70% VO2 Max, speed increased to VO2 Max and then the subject ran until exhaustion.

They put the results in terms of Running Economy (how much energy is needed for your body to move at a certain velocity), Rating of Perceived Exertion, VO2 Max, Respiratory Exchange Ratio, and Heart Rate, but i’ll only talk about Running Economy and Rating of Perceived Exertion because I think those are most relevant to you. They found that there was a significant improvement in Running Economy in the stretching routines versus not, meaning that the subjects used less energy to achieve the same velocity when they stretched. They also found that the Rating of Perceived Exertion was significantly lower in both the stretching routines in comparison to the no stretching routine. Now this one I want to focus on because while it is the most subjective of the measurements (it’s basically like slapping someone and asking them to rate their pain from 1-10) it is the one most likely to be measurable and experienced by you and me. Whether you are new to running or a seasoned veteran, you *KNOW* when you’ve had a rough run and contrarily when you’ve had a good one. And when it comes to your mental state about running, this will probably be the most impactful measurement when it comes to building running habits e.g. you probably aren’t going to be running all that much if every run makes you feel like you’re halfway dead. This data suggests that you may perform slightly better and feel better about your run if you do soome kind of stretch in your warm up beforehand. Whether dynamic or static is more effective though is a bit difficult to say but personally I like the dynamic stretches because it gets my heart rate up.

So, should you stretch in your warmup? Well here are two studies (2,3) that contradict this study. The first one actually found that dynamic stretches were detrimental (however, this was looking at runners going at 90% VO2 which most of us will not do recreationally), while the second found no statistically significant impact. So there’s that. But if you’d like my opinion, I vote yes, yes you should. I don’t know about you but when I don’t warm up with some stretches I can feel it, I can feel my body taking longer to “get the engine going”, and it does turn the first couple miles into a suckfest. And this is one of those things where you can very easily make your own informed decision by trying it yourself! Dorcas and Tim put together a great series of dynamic stretches before TNT, maybe one session you try them and one you don’t, and check in with yourself and how you feel. We as a club support any effort to improve your running experience and if possible, set you up to prevent injuries. Anything we can do to not make you feel like a pile of sweaty sadness after a run, we’re going to do that thing! Because we like y’all! So bottom line, come to TNT, do your dynamic stretches, and there is a statistically plausible chance you’ll benefit from it either mentally or physically :)

  1. Faelli, Emanuela, Marco Panascì, et al. "The Effect of Static and Dynamic Stretching during Warm-Up on Running Economy and Perception of Effort in Recreational Endurance Runners." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 18, no. 16 (2021): 8386.
  2. Yamaguchi, T.; Takizawa, K.; et al. Effect of General Warm-Up Plus Dynamic Stretching on Endurance Running Performance in Well-Trained Male Runners. Res. Q. Exerc. Sport 2019, 90, 527–533
  3. Zourdos, M.C.; Wilson, J.M.; et al. Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Energy Cost and Running Endurance Performance in Trained Male Runners. J. Strength Cond. Res. 2012, 26, 335–341.

Afternotes (RJ’s Rambling opinion)

I will note that as a scientist I find the research on this VASTLY understudied and uninformative to the average person. The majority of the studies that I found (which was not an exhaustive search) had trained or professionally athletic cis-males as their study group. The studies that did include cis-females also selected them from the pool of trained or professional athletes. And I could not find much satisfactory information regarding trans-identifying athletes at least in regards to dynamic stretches. Which is all to say that if you do see stats out there, consider where their samples come from and how/if the results can truly be applied to you. I for example, have very little in common athletically with an olympic level sprinter so I won’t be looking to studies that use them as a reference. Also the studies were usually pretty darn small, <50 people. Health statistics are outside of my discipline so maybe this is an appropriate number but in general I would like to see a larger study before I could trust any statistically significant results. Reason being; imagine if you were to go into Central Park and grab the first 5 runners you saw, you might just have gotten lucky and snagged the 5 fittest people in all of New York. But if you grabbed the first 100 or so, you can be more confident that you have a wide array of fitness levels and therefore could potentially apply your results to a larger audience. And I won’t get on my soapbox today in regards to the importance of diversity in health statistics but suffice to say that there are many more kinds of people that would benefit from well designed tests than are actually included in the sample pools for those tests.

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