A Ritual Questioned
By Frank Horwill
When, in 1980 during a lecture to the British Milers’ Club, John Anderson, National B.A.A.B. Coach for Scotland, and former mentor of Dave Bedford and Dave Woodcroft (Both broke world records at 10k and 5k respectively), stated, "I do not believe in stretching before training and competition," there was a gasp from his audience. This was tantamount to heresy, some even thought it bordered on idiocy. Many of the coaches present had been brought up through the Oxford University athletics system, the coaching manual of which stated in very precise terms how a warm up should proceed:-
- Jog 1 – 2 miles.
- Do suppling exercises (Arms).
- Do stretching exercises (Legs).
- Do strength exercises before training. Omit before competition
- Do several strides of 150 yards in length, increasing speed every 50 yards.
After this edict there followed an observation – "Even if you do nothing else, at least you’ve done something useful."
Olaf Astrand, in 1974, asserted that a 10 minute jog before any physical activity raises the body temperature 1 degree F., this in turn enables haemoglobin in the blood to take on more oxygen and to release more to the working muscles. The difference in performance between no warm up jog and a 10 minute jog, is that the latter will enhance physical activity to come by up to 4 %. Also, the phenomena of "second wind" will be eradicated. This condition occurs about 2 minutes after any exercise where the oxygen supply has not caught up with the body’s demand to perform an activity.
In 1990, the noted physiologist, David Costill, sought out 100 runners after the Boston Marathon who said that they did no stretching at all before training and competition. He also found 100 runners who did stretch. He then compared their injury record for the previous year. He found that the incidence of injury between them was the same. Stretching did not appear to grant greater immunity to injury than not stretching. However, when the same kind of survey was done with only female marathoners, stretching before training and competition did definitely have an advantage, and those who stretched before and after running had an even greater immunity to injury. Now, we can say that this survey is not very conclusive because of the limited numbers involved and it did not put the question on a test basis. This is what David A. Lally, Ph.D., did at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He studied 1,543 runners who had participated in Honolulu Marathon and came up with the astounding conclusion that pre-workout stretching increased the risk of injury! Lally classed an injury as, "Inability to train for at least five days." In the survey, 47 per cent of all male runners who stretched regularly were injured during a one-year period, while only 33 per cent of male runners who didn’t stretch were hurt, a statistically significant difference. Again, this trend did not apply to females. Stretchers and non stretchers had the same rate of injury. Another odd finding was that the survey did not apply to the large numbers of Japanese runners who take part in this particular marathon. Only white male marathoners were prone to injury after stretching. Lally was a meticulous researcher. He removed from his statistics runners who had been injured before his study began and who had subsequently adopted stretching as a cautionary measure, and even after this weeding out things didn’t look good for the stretchers, who had a 33 % greater risk of injury. But, there is a flaw in this survey. There was no check made on the actual stretching process done by each athlete. There are basically two types of stretching – ballistic and static. The former uses movement, such as high kicking, while the second holds a muscle at full extent for several seconds. But Lally’s findings were not all gloom and doom for stretch advocates. Those who stretched after their workouts had lower frequncie of injuries.
Lally’s work set off a spate of research projects and one in particular is worthy of note carried out at James Madison University in Virginia. Twelve healthy subjects tried out four different hamstring exercises:
- After running at a speed above 70% of hear-rate reserve for 4 minutes or more (Heart-rate reserve is maximum heart rate minus resting heart rate.)
- After running at just 60% of heart-rate reserve for three or more minutes.
- After warming up the hamstrings with heating pads.
- With the muscles in a "cold" state – after no warm up procedures at all.
Stretching the hamstrings after (1) listed proved to be far superior to the other three methods at promoting hamstring flexibility, there being a 5% higher range of motion than the other three, and 10% greater flexibility. The stretches carried out were the PNF (Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) type, meaning that stretches of the hamstrings were alternated with contractions of the same muscles. Both periods lasted for about 10 seconds, repeated three times. Various time spans were used after the main exercises for the contraction. Immediate stretching scored over contractions done up to 15 minutes afterwards. Note that the practice of stretching the muscles in the cold condition didn’t help improve flexibility at all, this is a common occurrence with many sports people.
Many studies carried out in the medical field have shown that stretching stimulates the passage of amino acids into muscle cells, accelerates protein synthesis inside the cells, and inhibits protein degradation. Logically, post workout stretching should help muscle cells repair themselves and synthesise energy-producing enzymes and structures, which improve overall fitness.
The James Madison study is given credence by research carried out at Auburn University with 51 students. This involved the subjects in either stretching their muscles before or after jogging. It was clear that jogging before stretching – not after – was a superior way to improve the flexibility of chronically tight Achilles tendons and calf muscles. But, this study did support the idea of stretching out lower back muscles before running, loosening the lower back prior to workouts seemed to reduce lower back stiffness more effectively, compared to post-workout stretches.
We now come to a critical observation. It’s popular to position stretching before the beginning of a workout, but there’s actually very little resemblance between the act of stretching out a muscle and the rapid shortenings (contraction) which muscles undergo during a typical workout. On face value, stretching doesn’t represent specific preparation for an actual training session. During a stretch, a muscle is elongated and then held in a static position, in a workout, a muscle shortens repeatedly.
There is plenty of evidence that PNF stretching is more effective. Fortunately, PNF is easy to carry out. Take the calf muscles, for example, you can simply stretch your calves passively for a while, contract your ankle flexors (the muscles in the front of the lower part of the leg) and then passively elongate your calf muscles again. Or, you can stretch your calves, isometrically contract them, work your ankle flexors, and then stretch your calf muscles again. If you do this systematically – in particular in areas of your body with excess muscle tightness – you should notice a flexibility upgrade.
So, what makes a good warm up? Instead of stretching, try other more specific preparatory activities. Walking, jogging slowly, skipping, hopping, walking on toes pointed inwards, outwards and ahead, in that order, walking on heels with the same variations as for toes, then start mimicking the movements of the sport to come. After the workout go into PNF work.
Now so far, the discussion has been about a facet of the warm up. The general consensus of opinion being that a warm muscle is more efficient than a cold one. If we firmly believe that our warm-up routine is going to produce a better performance and it revolves around the acquisition of heat, the time factor is an important one. There’s not much point in going through an elaborate routine and then going off for a cup of tea and a bun! Or, stopping to engage in a conversation about the previous night’s television programme. Russian research tells us that not more than three minutes should elapse after the warm up has ended and the main activity starts. Otherwise, the whole point of the warm up is lost. Another important point which the Lally survey did not explore is the habit of runners in the winter on a track who get warm jogging a mile or two, and then stop for 10 minutes or more in freezing conditions to do their stretching. This is the time to put on extra clothing.
The next Olympics will be in Sydney, Australia, it will be hot, very hot. Those at risk will be all engaged in an endurance sport. The "warm up" there will require careful thought and at the Melbourne Institute of Sport they are not talking about "warming up" for distance runners but cooling off before competition. It is well known that once a runner’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees F. and unless water is taken, there will be a rapid decline in performance. It is clear that distance events held where the temperature is even in the low seventies the 104 degrees F. barrier will be reached within 30 minutes. By immersing athletes in a cold bath for 30 minutes before an event like the marathon, the critical 104 degrees level is delayed by an hour. This goes to show that hard and fast rules accepted as virtual rituals over the years often have to be modified to meet extreme climatic conditions, and also the march of science.