Running as a sport has been around a long, LONG time. Science is trying to figure out all of the ways in which running is good for us, bad for us, how we can get faster, go farther, be stronger, get fitter. Over the course of running’s long history, we’ve seen lots of information about best stretching practices for runners.

These studies are revealing that stretching “cold,” right before beginning activity may lead to injury. Kind of like not warming up your car before driving it in the cold weather. Stretching before activity with no warm up could lead to straining the muscles.

Most evidence for stretching before the meat of the workout seems to point to a light warm-up, 5-10 minutes of easy activity like a spin on the bike, a brisk walk or a super slow jog warms up the muscles enough to stretch them out. There is conflicting evidence that stretching after a warm-up and before a workout really does anything at all.

The evidence is now telling us that stretching AFTER running is more beneficial than a pre-run stretch. A light stretch of the major muscles you work in addition to some foam rolling should suffice in preventing post-workout DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

In this Runner’s World article, Alex Hutchinson goes over the latest research about whether stretching has mental as well as physical benefits. Hutchinson discusses a study that explores these two theories and what really makes the difference for us as runners.

In the physical category, we believe that consistent stretching over time allows us more flexibility, meaning we have a greater range of motion with less effort. On the mental side though, you are “learning” to deal with the stretch and teaching your muscles to just perform the stretch with less perceived discomfort.

The study in question lasted only eight weeks, with the participants stretching at least twice a week for no longer than 20 minutes at a time. The data that came back showed there was no discernable change in flexibility, but mentally, the participants got more comfortable in a deeper stretch.

According to Hutchinson, if the study lasted longer, there may have been more noticeable physical effects to stretching, and he suggests that becoming more flexible is a long-term achievement rather than short term.

Yes, we still have questions, and the science and study behind stretching as it pertains to running is still conflicting and confusing. Here’s the bottom line on stretching, and it’s just like everything else. There is no “one-size-fits-all” way to incorporate stretching into your routine. Should you? Probably, and moreso as you get older. Is it horrible if you skip it once in awhile? Probably not, but stretching will help you and your running long term. If yoga suits you, select a program designed for runners. If you’d rather spend that time foam rolling, go for it. Stretching is part of the recovery plan, but not the end-all-be-all of that recovery. It’s one piece of a much bigger picture, and you should decide what works best for you.

The fact is that we know that stretching works, but we aren’t really sure what those effects are exactly. Proper recovery after hard work, which is a multi-faceted concept, is really the point of stretching.

So how do you incorporate stretching?