Stretching, Foam Rolling and Muscle Guns

Stretching and warm-up routines are race-day rituals for many runners, but even seasoned runners may not be stretching in a way that is most beneficial to their bodies. 

Jeff Swartz, a physical therapist at Mercy Health – Orthopedics and Sports Medicine who specializes in running, said some stretching may even be doing more harm than good. 

“Stretching a muscle constantly can make a muscle weaker,” Swartz said. “Research says stretching programs have no effect on injury rates – which is counter to what we’ve all been taught.”

What does that mean for a runner? As runners, we need three flexible joints to run efficiently: hip flexors, calves, and big toe muscles.

“Your hip flexors need to be flexible if you want to run fast. If you’re sitting all day at a desk, or in a car, those hip flexors are going to be tight. As runners, we need to do speed work. If I’ve been sitting at my desk all day, I should be rested, but my hip flexors have been sitting all day in a slack position and now I’m asking them to do hard speedwork – that’s one-way people get injured,” he said. 

Stretching the quads and hamstrings is good for general well-being and health, but it is not necessarily needed for running. 

“Realistically, stretching has to do with how much time you have. If you have time, dynamic stretching like squats, high knees, A, B, and C skips, karaoke and lunge walks are great stretches to get the muscles in the joints and your heart ready, so you’re not shocking the system beginning a run. Static stretching, where you’re holding positions for 30-60 seconds, can be done after a run or whenever you have time. If you only have 45 minutes to run, do your run and find time later in the day for static stretching,” Swartz said. 

However, tight, and injured muscles happen often to runners – that’s where foam rollers, stick rollers, massages and percussion guns come in – and they do a great job of it. The more targeted the technique the better. 

“Using stick rollers or percussion guns, which are more targeted and aggressive, two or three times a week can be very beneficial. If you’re doing more than that, there may be an underlying issue that may be addressed.  Just because it hurts doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be rolled out.  It may be because the muscle is weak and needs to be strengthened or your running mechanics are overloading that tissue,” he said. 

Strength over flexibility is key to keeping your legs healthy and injury-free. If your leg muscles need strengthening, flexibility isn’t going to do the trick. 

“One inevitable truth – the best runners have super tight legs. Running is nothing more than absorbing and releasing kinetic energy. If someone is too loose, we know they won’t be able to absorb and release the energy the same way someone who may be a little tighter will,” Swartz said.

We hope you keep these tips in mind – especially those currently preparing for the Toledo Glass City Marathon on Sunday, April 23. From the relay to the 5k to the full marathon, there is something for everyone in this race. There is still time to register if you’ve been training but have yet to sign up.

Mercy Health’s orthopedic and sports medicine team of physicians and running medicine specialists are here to help! They are available to assist you during your training and proudly provide medical aid to runners on-site during marathon race weekend.

Learn more about the orthopedic and sports medicine services we offer.