More on Flexibility and Running Economy

Frontsplit 1
Never do this.

I have previously posted about some studies addressing the relationship between flexibility and running economy. The studies find that less flexibility correlates with greater running economy. The reason is probably that elastic recoil of muscle and tendon is an important contributor to running power. Just as a golf ball will bounce higher and longer than a squash ball, a runner will bounce higher and further off stiff hamstrings and calves than floppy ones.

I’ve recently come across two more studies on the same issue, discussed at the excellent Sweat Science blog, which I highly recommend.

According to the first study, about 60-70 percent of flexibility is heritable, and one gene that helps determine flexibility level is called COL5A1. The researchers were curious whether variations in this gene would correlate with endurance running performance. It turned out that runners with the “stiffer” version of COL5A1 were faster. Interestingly, the stiffer people were not faster at biking or swimming, where elastic return of energy is less important. The results were essentially repeated in a second study looking at a different set of runners.

Two important takeaways here. First, genetics matter. Second, more evidence that flexibility is overrated. Don’t stretch to get faster. (Or to prevent injuries.)

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9 Responses to More on Flexibility and Running Economy

  1. There is certainly something to this but in my experience, when I give my clients more flexibility by releasing the binding, particularly around their joints they report that they feel as if they had been running with the parking brake on or as if they were shrink-wrapped before and after the work they felt they could run faster and with greater ease. Many of them who were constantly dealing with injuries, stopped getting injured. One of my clients at age 50 had a streak of over 400 days while training intensively for the mile – he said that he had never gone more than a month without some kind of injury slowing him down. I should say that this seems to be even more the case for athletes who have been running for decades, that the increasing tightness in their body slows them down more than the physiological decline due to aging…

    • Jim,

      I like the image of shrink wrap and have felt something similar in my own body. The idea that more flexibility means better running is very appealing on a common sense level. However, the data just don’t seem to support it. Perhaps different measurements of flexibility would create different study results.

  2. The fastest runners on Earth are extremely flexible. Have you seen Olympic Athletes? They have amazing flexibility. This would also translate to vertical jumpers if there were any merit to the theory. High jumpers, basketball players and volleyball players are all very flexable. I think the theory is flawed. But I’d love to see more information on the subject.

  3. That is very interesting. In my sport (olympic weightlifting) we hit some extreme body positions.We are generally coached to stretch as much as possible. But i personally know a Commonwealth lifter and a Worlds Masters Champion who wouldnt know what a stretch is! I was doing tonnes of stretching and self myofascial release with negligable results. Would the Feldenkrais Method help my sport?

    • Colin,

      Thank for the info. Weightlifting seems like a fascinating sport. Of course the study in question applies only to running, and your sport, along with dance or gymnastics or diving, is one of the few that requires high levels of flexibility. I think the best way to get functional flexibility for weightlifting is probably by doing weightlifting. Extreme ranges of motion, particularly under heavy load and at high speeds and forces is a huge threat to the brain. You can reduce the threat by getting familiar with it and gaining skills in that context, which is exactly what weightlifting training does. Feldenkrais or some other movement practice might be able to get you to safely explore and incorporate some ranges of motion or movement patterns that would be too dangerous to perform under load. Chances are, good weightlifting coaches have already discovered the best ways to get the job done, and have already used any feldenkrais type principles in teaching their athletes, such as moving at very slow speeds or without loads to groove proper technique in the absence of threat.

      ailar with it and In order to decrease the that yu need to

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