I am a firm believer in double workouts. I advocate double workouts to enhance performance as well as to possibly prevent injury. I strongly believe that runners working out just once per day are less likely to enjoy their runs than those who do the double!
Now, lest you think I’ve done a 180 and completely contradicted everything I have said in the past about overtraining and overuse injuries, let me clarify what I mean by “double workouts.”
The first workout is, of course, the daily run. The second is the auxiliary exercise routine – stretching – almost all runners use to prepare for that run. Over the years, the “necessity” of stretching for injury prevention has been drilled into the collective runners’ consciousness by every article written in every running magazine published from here to Antarctica. This notion is so ingrained that one of the first things I hear from injured runners as they try to assess the cause of their injury is, “I probably haven’t been stretching enough.”
The trouble is, no one knows for certain that stretching actually does prevent or decrease the likelihood of injuries. The number of solid controlled studies on the subject is sorely lacking. And, many of the studies that simply look at groups of runners with injuries and try to correlate reported factors (mileage, effort, racing, stretching habits, etc.) generally report little or no relation between stretching and decreased injury incidence. A few actually report a possible increased risk for injury with stretching! While much of what has been written, therefore, appears to be based more on common sense or anecdotal experience than valid scientific inquiry, at least one recent study lends some firm support to this “conventional wisdom.”
The Hughston Clinic in Georgia performed a controlled study on hamstring flexibility exercise and lower extremity overuse injuries using military infantry basic trainees as subjects. The control (148 trainees) and intervention (150) groups both completed a 13-week basic training course, with the latter group adding three hamstring-stretching sessions to their program. At the end of the course, the researchers found that hamstring flexibility had increased significantly in the intervention as compared to the control group. They also determined that the stretching group had an injury rate of 16.7% as compared to the control group rate of 29.1%! The authors concluded that the number of lower extremity overuse injuries was significantly lower in infantry basic trainees with increased hamstring flexibility.
Stretching has also been advocated as a means to improve running performance, but again, the evidence is scanty. There have been some studies that provide indirect evidence for this claim by showing increases in muscle strength after a program of specific stretching exercises over a period of time, but I have yet to see any research directly linking stretching and faster running times. At the same time, since there is also evidence that stretching impedes performance, it seems reasonable to advocate it on the chance that it could help.
The bottom line is that stretching is probably beneficial to some undetermined extent, so every runner should make it a part of his or her routine. I believe, though, that these exercises should be a separate workout, and for a very simple reason. The problem with most runners is that they do these exercises just before and sometimes immediately after, their run. And most runners, being in a hurry to get out on the road or off to work afterwards, rush through their routine and do not stretch properly.
Stretching should be done slowly and gently, a la yoga techniques, with each position held for at least 90 seconds. Each muscle group should be stretched at least twice each session, so if this includes the quads, hamstrings, calves, shins, feet, hips, and low back, this adds up to about 20-30 minutes minimum. This is why I recommend you do a second workout, at a separate time, devoted to stretching exclusively, so that you will take your time to perform these exercises correctly and adequately.
If you run in the morning, set aside a half-hour in the evening, say while watching the nightly news or listening to music. If you’re an after-work runner, reverse this and do your stretching in the morning. (Remember: you will feel a bit stiffer at that time of day.) You won’t notice the benefits immediately in terms of reducing your risk of injury, but see if you don’t notice your runs feeling more comfortable after trying this consistently for a week.