Does it really matter if you can touch your toes?
When we talk about splits, our flexibility is likely the last thing on our minds. It’s not like sitting in a full straddle or bending yourself into pretzel-like yoga poses shows up in your mile times. Or does it?
Flexibility does play a role in running, even if you’re not exactly trying to emulate Simone Biles. When you run, your lower leg joints and connective tissue tighten. That’s a good thing in terms of strength and running economy, but it’s not so great for your joints and muscles. The more inflexible they are, the more prone you can be to injury. But being overly flexible can cause issues, too. Here’s what you need to know about how bendy you should be.
What is flexibility?
Think about a basic toe-touch test, the former standard for flexibility. Static holds like that are what first come to mind when most people think about flexibility. But that’s a very one-dimensional take.
On a more macro level, “flexibility is your connective tissue’s passive range of motion,” explains Andy Speer, certified strength and conditioning specialist and Peloton Tread instructor. It’s passive because you’re letting gravity, a strap, or someone else stretches you into the position. That’s different from mobility, which requires strength and efficiency to move through a normal range of motion at a joint.
But the truth is, it’s a mix of both flexibility and mobility that will help boost your running performance. “Think of dynamic flexibility over static flexibility,” says Chris Lundstrom, Ph.D., a distance running coach for Minnesota Distance Elite and professor of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. “It’s about moving through a range of motion versus holding a position, which may be outside of where you actually have any strength in your muscle.”
How does flexibility help runners?
Running is a unilateral exercise—to oversimplify it: a continuous series of single-leg leaps. “Think of the whole musculotendinous unit as a spring,” explains Lundstrom. “If it’s too stiff and not flexing at all, it’s not absorbing any energy or giving any energy back. But if it’s too loose, then it’s not able to rebound in the same way and you might be less economical in your movement.”
Flexibility especially comes into play when you consider the role of your hips while running. “When you push off the ground, you want to be able to lift your knee above your hip without your pelvis rotating,” says Speer. “If you can’t get full hip extension into that pushing leg because your hip flexors are super tight and short, your body is going to compensate, and there’s a detriment to your performance as well as a risk of injury.”
The ankles and calves are another important area in terms of flexibility, adds Speer. If your ankle isn’t dorsiflexing (when your toe draws closer to your shin) properly due to tightness in the lower leg, you’re reducing the amount of power you can get from your push-off. And limited ankle dorsiflexion also shortens the Achilles tendon and calf muscles, which limits the amount of potential energy that can be stored when you hit the ground.
Picture the difference between a sprinter’s stride and the shuffle many of us revert to near the end of a marathon; that shuffle comes from the tightness that builds up in your body over the course of a long distance. Many distance runners don’t push their connective tissues through the full range of motion at an easy pace. But if you want to leverage a strong final kick at the end of a race, you’ll be better able to do so if you have good range of motion, especially through the hip joint, says Lundstrom.
How can you improve your flexibility?
Here’s the good news: You don’t need to have gymnast-level flexibility to get the full benefits for running. “The idea that you need to be able to touch your toes isn’t important in running,” says Lundstrom. “But making sure that your flexibility isn’t inhibited by some sort of musculotendinous issue or chronic scar tissue and knots is important.”
Working with a physical therapist or even massage therapist can help pinpoint any problem areas. At home, foam rolling your legs can significantly improve your lower-back and hamstring flexibility and range of motion, new research published in the International Journal of Research in Exercise Physiology shows. Other selfmyofascial relief tools like percussion guns can assist with proper warm up and recovery before and after running.
You don’t need to spend ages sitting in static stretches either (those can still help, though, as long as you save them for post-run or recovery days; one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that static stretching can impair a muscle’s performance for up to 24 hours).
On strength days, you can work a muscle at a lesser range of motion to strengthen it, and then slowly and gradually build the range at which you can apply a greater stress through the joint, says Speer. “It’s the difference between stretching the calf and a loaded calf raise, which is stretching the muscle under load,” he explains. “You’re still stretching and lengthening that muscle while reinforcing handling load.”
Quadruped or standing hip circles, during which you’re actively taking your joints through their range of motion in a very deliberate manner, are invaluable, Speer adds, as are isometric hip bridges that strengthen the glute muscles while releasing the hip flexors.
And dynamic stretching, which research shows improves performance if done before running, also helps with flexibility. “Those classic dynamic warm-ups, A and B skips, high knees, and things like that, do a lot to maintain that range of motion,” says Lundstrom.
In addition to working range of motion, that little bit of plyometric impact builds your tissue’s resilience to handling the demands of longer and more intense runs, adds Speer. “Even doing something like strides or sprinting at the end of your run a couple times a week can really open up that full range of motion,” says Lundstrom.
The point being: There are multiple ways to improve and maintain your flexibility without becoming a regular at your local yoga studio. “Do it when you can, but consistency is key,” says Speer. “That may mean you do five stretches a day for 45 seconds. That’s going to yield more results in the long run than one yoga class a week.”
“It’s definitely a use-it-or-lose-it situation,” adds Lundstrom. “A little bit can go a long way.”