This guest post is contributed by Curb Ivanic, a self professed “running nerd”, strength and conditioning coach, and the creator of Core Running, a system which develops good running technique and form and which helps runners avoid injuries and improve their performance. You can find more about Curb on his website, his blog or on twitter as @curbivanic.
My marathon training plan is cranking along and I’m really pleased with the results that I’m seeing. I finished a track workout earlier today and my speed has increased by 3% in three weeks. On March 18 I did 5 x 800 m with a 200 m recovery walk/jog and my average pace was 5:54 min/mile (that’s 3:40 min/km for the metrically inclined). Today I repeated the 5 x 800 m with the same recovery and my pace was 5:44 min/mile (3:33 min/km). But what I’m really happy about is today felt easier.
Don’t get me wrong, I still find track workouts really hard especially since I do them on my own. But my hips and legs felt awesome; loose and strong at the same time. And the funny thing is I’m doing less “stretching” than I ever have.
I’ve been doing a ton of research over the last 6 months and the more research I do on “stretching” the less of it I do. I haven’t stopped doing mobility and flexibility work but I just don’t do a whole lot of static stretching. Maybe 5 – 10 minutes per week.
Static stretching is the most common form of stretching that runners do. You know the type, you hold a position for 20 – 60 seconds expecting the muscle to stretch. But the truth is, scientific research doesn’t back up the effectiveness of doing static stretching.
What I have done though is spend a lot more time working out trigger points in my muscles and doing a lot more dynamic mobilizations like the ones I teach in my Core Running clinics and that are included in the Core Running System.
I probably spend 10 – 20 minutes per day of doing these types of mobility work. Sometimes I do even more like after my long run on Sunday.
Why Not Stretch After a Long Run? Trigger Point Anatomy & Physiology
Last weekend turned into a bit of an epic long run. My buddy Pete and I ran 24 miles which included 3,000 feet of climbing with 500 of that coming in one mile during the middle of the run. If you know Vancouver, our route was from 20th & Cambie across the Lions Gate Bridge up to the base of Grouse Mountain and then return. The pictures below give you a good idea of the route.
Though we kept the pace reasonable, a 24 miler is still tiring no matter what. And including 3,000 of uphill and then 3,000 of downhill puts a lot of stress on the muscles. Suffice to say my legs were full of muscle knots (aka trigger points) by the time we finished.
My recovery was the same as the previous week including a long, hot bath and trigger point therapy that night with my trusty rubber ball. I spent about half an hour working out the knots in my legs and hips as we watched “127 Hours” Sunday night. (Great movie by the way; I highly recommend it.) I did no static stretching at all. And guess what? Monday I had virtually no muscle soreness or tightness. There were little spots of discomfort but nothing that you’d expect to have from running 24 miles the day before.
The reason I don’t believe in stretching after a run is that muscle fatigue creates a lot of trigger points and static stretching cannot stretch a trigger point. Static stretching can actually make things worse.
Trigger points are tight areas of muscle that are in a contracted state. But the parts of the muscle on either side of the trigger piont are actually overstretched because the contracted part is pulling on the rest of the muscle. And it’s common to have more than one trigger point in a muscle with each knot pulling on the other muscle fibres.
Static stretching cannot pull apart the knots. So all you end up doing is stretching the overstretched parts of the muscle and the knot stays put. To work out the knots requires hands on therapy. Using different types of tools (balls, foam rollers, the Stick and such) you break apart the connection between the individual proteins that are stuck together in the trigger point. Seeing a massage therapist trained in trigger points is also very effective but on a daily basis self treatment is the most practical solution.
Trigger points hurt because the muscle proteins are stuck together and they are a toxic waste dump. There are a number of toxic substances that build up due to the contracted nature of the muscle in these spots. Your muscle in this region is literally starving for nutrients and oxygen.
This also means your muscle can’t work as efficiently and is weaker when knots are present. Blood flow is restricted and the muscle proteins that make up the muscle cells don’t slide over each other like they normally would. I’m often fond of saying that where you’re tight you’re also weak. Release these muscle knots and you can build strength and endurance in the muscle. With muscle knots present you limit the benefits of strength or endurance training in that muscle.
My personal experience has been that my muscles feel more supple and pliable than ever. In the past with the amount of training I’m doing I would be feeling tight almost all the time. But working out my muscle knots over the last year I feel much more mobile and can feel the difference in my running.
A great resource to help you is the Trigger Point Symptom Checker.