A few years ago, I underwent a somewhat horrifying personal transformation into the sort of person who runs for fun. It started innocently enough one day when I thought I might go for a short jog, and somewhere along the way running ever-longer distances became the activity around which I structure my days off. Being that I used to be the kind of person who ruthlessly mocked marathon runners, my tentative hope to run one myself within the next year has provoked no small amount of consternation among friends who knew me well. (I’m running my first half-marathon this Sunday — wish me luck!) The Better Half has accepted that I must be allowed a certain amount of time to run unreasonable distances, otherwise I get very cranky. How or why this happened is beyond me.
Anyhow, I say all that as preamble to why I bothered to read a recent post on the New York Times “Well” blog, which is all about personal health. I generally eschew personal health information from general media sites, because it tends to be poorly reliable, or takes some tentative new scientific finding and trumpets it as a miracle that will allow all of us to avoid old age, disability and death. (See also: antioxidants.) Since we can cram our gullets with lycopene, omega-3 fatty acids and aspirin and yet die anyway, it’s best to keep the proclamations of WebMD in perspective.
But this post? It had to do with running, so like any annoyingly obsessive runner I had to see what I should be doing differently. The answer, it turns out, is “who knows?”
Is it time, once again, to stretch? For decades, many of us stretched before a workout, usually by reaching toward our toes or leaning against a wall to elongate our hamstrings, then holding that pose without moving until it felt uncomfortable, a technique known as static stretching. Most people, including scientists and entire generations of elementary-school P.E. teachers, believed that static stretching lengthened muscles and increased flexibility, making people better able to perform athletically.
But about 10 years ago, researchers began putting the practice to the test. They found that when athletes did static stretches, performance often suffered. Many couldn’t jump as high, sprint as fast or swing a tennis racquet or golf club as powerfully as they could before they stretched. Static stretching appeared to cause the nervous system to react and tighten, not loosen, the stretched muscle, the research showed.
Not surprisingly, stretching fell out of favor among well-informed athletes and coaches. Last year, new exercise guidelines issued by the American College of Sports Medicine specifically advised against static stretching before workouts or competitions. The European College of Sport Sciences issued a position statement saying that such stretching could “diminish” athletic performance.
Which means, naturally, that static stretching is ripe for scientific reappraisal. And right on cue, several contrarian new reviews and studies suggest that static stretching may not be so bad after all — and may even be desirable.
First, a long-standing and nettlesome pet peeve:
Of course, conclusions like “no detrimental effect” or “did not have an adverse effect” are not ringing endorsements of static stretching and beg the obvious question: if brief stretches aren’t bad for us, are they actively good? Should we, in other words, be making an effort to stretch before we exercise?
Emphasis downheartedly mine. That is not begging the question! Is it too much to ask that the paper of record know the difference between “begging” a question and “raising” one? Are Tim and I the only people who care any longer? Argh!
Getting back to my main point, whether or not to stretch is just one small question in a long, venerable line of recommendations and practices about which the medical community has changed its mind. This will probably end up being a running theme for me. (See what I did there…? Oh, never mind.) As much as we love to tout the virtues of evidence-based medicine as being scientifically sound and solid, it’s actually relatively rare that any question in medicine stays settled for long. An excellent example is whether or not to prescribe hormone-replacement therapy for post-menopausal women, which was common practice when I was in medical school and then very rapidly become not standard practice. More recently, the benefits of a widely-used cholesterol medication were called into question. Give us a few years, and we’ll probably find out reasons to start using it again.
Don’t get me wrong — there are many questions that have been studied to such an extent that they have been answered as well as can ever be hoped. Cigarettes cause cancer. Vaccines don’t cause autism. Antibiotics won’t cure your cold. But there is much more uncertainty in medicine than we like to concede, and it’s important that we proceed with appropriate humility at all times. Human physiology is remarkably complicated, and we often don’t know exactly how tinkering in one area affects the whole.
As for me, I’ll probably continue to stretch in the same manner as before I read the article. But not because any doctors recommended it. No, for advice about running I usually just rely on other runners.