Flexibility is essential to many sports, including gymnastics, swimming, and diving. While athletes of these sports consider flexibility a vital part of training, does the need for flexibility end in these sports? Should runners be flexible?
Many experts, coaches, and trainers have weighed in on the topic, leading to conflicting results. While some folks argue there’s a correlation between increased hamstring flexibility and reduced running economy, others say that better hip flexibility and explosive power are correlated.
These results are confusing, but we’re here to help. We did the hard part for you (research) and are here to offer what we found.
Does Flexibility Improve Speed?
Many experts, trainers, and coaches argue that flexibility can help improve your overall speed. For example, consider Usain Bolt, known to be the fastest man in the world. He holds records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, shocking the world with his speed and power.
However, while Bolt undoubtedly has incredible explosive power, he isn’t one for long-distance events. While fast, he doesn’t have the endurance it takes to maintain that speed for long distances. How is this possible? The answer falls to the basics of muscle physiology.
The reason Bolt is explosive but doesn’t have the endurance to match is because of the type of training he does. The muscles’ composition and training determine your skillset and the areas in which you build and excel.
Types Of Muscle Fibers
To understand this, we need to understand the two major muscle fiber types: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch muscle fibers, also known as Type 1, achieve their peak power within around 100 milliseconds. On the flip side, fast-twitch fibers are much quicker to the draw – they reach peak power within 50 milliseconds (for Type 11A fast-twitch fibers) or 25 milliseconds (for Type 11B fast-twitch fibers).
These fast-twitch fibers are much more powerful, offering quick, explosive power, while slow-twitch fibers take a bit longer to reach peak performance yet are more resistant to fatigue.
Each of us is born with varying proportions of different muscle fibers. Our genes determine this breakdown, so we’re often born favoring one over the other. With that in mind, let’s go back to our example of Usain Bolt. He was born a sprinter (muscle fiber proportions) but got there with grueling training.
We can improve our capabilities despite the fiber proportion we’re born with. This is precisely what Bolt did. Although he was born to be a sprinter, he honed his skills through high-intensity, anaerobic activity. This type of training targets fast-twitch fibers, helping Bolt optimize his performance.
In his training, Bolt focuses on two phases. The first phase targets explosiveness by focusing on three primary exercises: bunny hops, bounding, and box jumps. These movements force the body to produce a rapid, explosive reaction, which helps hone his out-of-the-gate power.
In the second phase of training, Bolt focuses on core stability and flexibility. This phase has two exercises: cable knee drives and hanging leg raises. These exercises help better his strength and flexibility in the hip flexors, which have been proven to improve stride length, and, in turn, speed.
Numerous studies display the association between hip flexor strength, sprint speed, and overall agility and performance.
So, in Usain Bolt’s case, flexibility can absolutely improve speed. Of course, it depends on what you’re training for – if you aren’t training to be the next Usain Bolt, these exercises and flexibility targets might not be the best option for achieving your goals.
Does Flexibility Make You Slower?
Some folks argue that better flexibility makes you slower in the long run. For some folks, this might be true, but every individual is different.
Let’s say you decide to complete a quick static stretching routine before your run. Unfortunately, your static stretching routine could hinder your performance if speed is your goal. The problem lies in the looseness of your muscles and connective tissues.
While stretching after a run is a solid way to prevent severe muscle soreness, stretching beforehand limits the amount of power you need for high speeds and explosive movements. A study conducted at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas expresses this: after static stretching, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles than they did after not stretching.
Alternative studies have shown the same thing, outlining decreases in muscle strength by as much as 30 percent.
Several studies also outline the complete opposite, stating athletes reported no change in performance with or without static stretching.
One particular study review outlines the lack of correlation between the two, stating that 69% of studies reported no substantial reduction in strength, speed, or power. This study reviewed 106 articles, although the initial search brought up 4,559 potential inclusions. Many articles failed the inclusion criteria due to a lack of appropriate reliability statistics, which compromised the study’s design.
It is important to note that this study concluded with mixed results. How so? The review states that the detrimental effects of static stretching are generally limited to lengthier durations or 60-second holds or longer. Many individuals keep static stretches before exercise shorter than this, hence the results.
Shorter stretch durations of less than 60 seconds in a pre-exercise routine offered no detrimental effects on maximum muscle performance. So, with that in mind, both answers are technically correct.
Yes, static stretching can detrimentally impact your muscle performance, especially if you hold stretches for longer than 60 seconds. Or, no, static stretching doesn’t inhibit muscle performance if you hold stretches for less than 60 seconds.
So, Will Flexibility Make Me Faster?
As mentioned, this is a tricky question. There are a lot of variabilities here between your individual stats, how you train, and your goals.
Areas Where Flexibility Is Helpful
In general, flexibility can make you faster. Flexibility isn’t necessarily a performance-limiting factor, and it’s often an underemphasized part of training regimens that should be included. However, it often is left out due to the potential variability in outcome.
Flexibility is a cornerstone of mobility, both of which are essential factors in how you perform. Your flexibility impacts the range of motion of the respective joints. Without proper flexibility, your range of motion may decrease.
In running, you’ll notice this in your stride. Without a solid range of motion in the appropriate joints, you won’t be able to stride out, inhibiting your speed. Oftentimes, shortened strides are associated with a lack of hamstring flexibility. In these cases, the leg cannot extend all the way, decreasing the distance covered in each step, in turn affecting speed.
Areas Where Flexibility Is A Hindrance
While flexibility is a helpful factor in some scenarios, it can be a hindrance in others. Let’s say you’re running a marathon. You want explosive power right out the gate to surge ahead of your competitors. However, you decide to warm up and elongate your muscles with static stretching.
In your stretching routine, you hold each pose for longer than one minute, focusing on a single muscle or group at a time. Doing this may affect your overall explosiveness, affecting your goal to surge ahead of your competitors immediately.
How About Dynamic Stretching?
On the other hand, let’s say you decided to move through a dynamic stretching routine instead of a static stretching routine. In this routine, you move through each move, never holding the pose for too long.
Now, when you start your marathon, you might notice better speed, agility, and acceleration. Why? Instead of holding the same pose for long periods, dynamic stretching involves actively tightening your muscles while stretching others. As you move through each stretch, you bring your joints through the full range of motion.
These stretches are functional, helping to increase muscle temperature and warm the body while decreasing muscle stiffness. So, while static stretching for pre-exercise flexibility might not be your best bet, dynamic stretching to warm up and stretch beforehand isn’t a bad idea.
Should I Avoid Flexibility Exercises As A Runner?
Flexibility is essential to a well-rounded fitness routine, so you shouldn’t cut it out simply based on your choice of sport or activity. Instead, be smart about how you improve your flexibility.
Since there is a known correlation between holding long, static stretches and explosive power in your run, stick to dynamic stretches that warm up and stretch your body. Choose stretches that benefit your goals instead of hinder them.
As a runner, you don’t want to be too loose and limber, as you might lose the explosive power you’re hoping for. However, at the same time, you don’t want to be a tight, coiled ball of inflexible muscles. As mentioned earlier, a lack of hip flexibility can negatively impact your athletic performance.
So, all in all, it’s about finding what works for you and your goals. Talk to your trainer or coach if you aren’t sure which stretches will best improve your overall performance. What works for one individual’s goals might not align with another person’s goals.