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Ask the Running Doc: Running Myth Busters

Whether you are new to running or have been at it for years, it seems that the same questions always come up year after year.

Should I stretch?

Does ice really help?

Do I need orthotics?

What kinds of shoes are best for me?

When should I foam roll?

Do I really need to do strength exercises?

I hear these questions being asked at local running stores, in my office and in running groups all the time. Today, we are going to set the record straight and get these questions answered once and for all!

Should I stretch?

The research and information out there about stretching can be confusing and, frankly, competing. You may read in one place you need to stretch, and then turn the page and it says not to! No wonder this question keeps coming up.

What we know for sure is that dynamic stretching should take the place of static stretching before you run or race. Static stretching prior to running has been found to impede performance and running economy.  It is also correlated with a decrease in power, strength and speed and an increase in the energy cost of running. Dynamic stretching has been found to decrease the incidence of lower extremity injury and increase caloric expenditure. [1-4] 

So, I am telling you not to stretch out your calf muscles or your hamstrings ever again right? No.  Static stretching has its place, too. Static stretching has been found to improve muscle length and can be very helpful when rehabbing from an injury.  If you always stretched and stop stretching, research says you may be setting yourself up for injury – so don’t stop stretching if you are already doing it. Simply modify when you are doing it.

Does ice really help?

On most occasions when people get hurt, they are told to “put ice on it.” Ice packs, cryotherapy and cold-water immersion are cooling techniques commonly used in sports injuries by athletic trainers, physical therapists, chiropractors and coaches. In recent years, cryotherapy has also become a popular way to recovery after difficult workouts or races.

Historically, research concerning the use of ice has been inconsistent at best. In fact, I have heard grumbling and whispers that we don’t need to ice and that heat may actually be better.  Many of my patients would prefer to use heat over ice. There is even research out there saying ice is “bad.” However the research that discusses ice damaging muscles and cells is not referring to using ice for running injuries or for 10-15 minute increments. So what should we do?

Exercise is a stress on the body that results in an inflammatory response. Exercise induces microscopic tears in the muscle tissues, which can lead to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Structural and biochemical changes occur after an acute or overuse injury.  When an injury occurs, there is an immediate inflammatory response at the cellular level, causing inflammation. Inflammation is part of the body’s natural healing process, but sometimes our body overcompensates.

What does applying cold to your body do? It induces vasoconstriction, which is when the blood vessels constrict and the blood flow is decreased. Vasoconstriction causes cell metabolism to slow and thereby reduces inflammation in the body. Cold exposure has been found to positively affect your body at a biochemical level.  It can increase the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which makes you feel good and can assist in the anti-inflammatory process. [5]

A recent article, “The Effect of Post-Exercise Cryotherapy on Recovery Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” addressed the finding that cooling, especially cold water immersion, was found to improve delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) up to 96 hours after exercise and to lower the rate of perceived exertion (RPE). [6] The article also found that cryotherapy did not have any significant effect on blood lactate levels immediately or even 24 hours later.

So what does this mean for you? Ice baths and cryotherapy following a hard run or race will likely improve your overall muscle soreness and your perceived exertion, and may provide other benefits as well. So go ahead: ice, ice baby….

Do I need orthotics?

Between 35 and 58 percent of runners use orthotics regularly.  Orthotics can be found over the counter at many running specialty stores, or they can be custom made.  

Orthotics can be very useful in many situations, but not everyone needs them or will benefit from them.  In my practice, I sometimes utilize orthotics when someone is recovering from an injury and will benefit from unloading the kinetic chain from the ground up.  However, that doesn’t mean the person will need orthotics forever. If a person is put in orthotics to manage overpronation, he or she may easily not need orthotics after spending time strengthening the hips, legs and feet. In some cases, I even recommend orthotics to people who demonstrate a functional weakness and don’t want to take the steps to improve their strength on their own. 

I have also been known to take orthotics away from people when the orthotics are not improving their pain or function.  I find that some doctors hand out orthotics like candy.  It is a pet peeve of mine when patients come into my office having been given orthotics just because they are having pain, not because they need them functionally.  If you are given a pair of orthotics and the person giving them to you has never seen you walk or move, be wary.  You have to be sure the orthotics feel good in your shoes and you are not leaving with too much support because that can cause issues in the future as well. What you do to your feet can affect your knees, hips, back and more.

If you are told you need orthotics, should you choose custom orthotics or over-the-counter orthotics? It depends. There is no strong research to support the use of custom orthotics vs. off-the-shelf orthotics. [7-9] Custom orthotics are expensive, but when you really need them, they can be worth it. Unfortunately, I have seen many people spend several hundred dollars on orthotics they will never wear. If you get custom orthotics, make sure the person fitting you has a good understanding of movement and is willing to make adjustments to the orthotics after you buy them. 

You will be running and walking in the orthotics, so after they are completed, have your physical therapist watch you run in them and see if you need to make any adjustments.

What kind of shoe is best for me?

Whatever kind feels good! The most current research is saying that the best way to pick out a running shoe is to find one that feels good. Nigg et al suggested a completely new paradigm based on this current research. “When selecting a running shoe, an athlete selects a comfortable product using his/her own comfort filter. This automatically reduces the injury risk and may be a possible explanation for the fact that there does not seem to have been a trend in running injury frequencies over time.” [10]

Footwear does influence the frequency of injury.  Comfort is key.  Shoes dissipate force, but they do not prevent injury. Research shoes that running shoes don’t prevent injury, but if you are in an uncomfortable shoe or if you have too much stability one you may increase your chances of injury. While they are getting more rare and are not recommended as often, motion control shoes have been found to cause the most injury no matter what type of foot you have. [10-12]

Nigg et al suggests that in the near future, “A ‘good’ running shoe would be a shoe that allows the skeleton to move in the ‘preferred movement path.’ A ‘good’ running shoe would, therefore, demand less muscle activity than a ‘bad’ running shoe." [10]

Heel to toe drop is another hot topic these days. What we know is that if you switch from a 12 mm drop to a 0 mm drop quickly, you will likely get injured. If you move from 12 mm to 8 mm, you are still in the “safe zone.” Despite the media and what we hear in our running groups, heel to toe drop does not have a significant impact on injury. [10]

The bottom line when it comes to shoes is: do you feel comfortable in the shoes you are in? There are so many variables when it comes to running shoes: amount of stability, cushion, heel-toe drop, weight and much more, but that is why you want to buy your shoes at a running store that really understands and is passionate about shoes! Let the shoes fit consultants there guide you.

When should I foam roll?

Unlike stretching, you can foam roll anytime.  During running, your muscles and fascia can become tight. Myofascial trigger points will often form and can lead to pain, tightness and muscle inhibition. Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release. Research has shown that foam rolling can decreased muscle soreness one to three days after exercise, it can improve range of motion without decreasing strength and it may improve performance. [13-15]

There are several brands and type of foam rollers out there.  There are different densities, colors and lengths; some have grooves and nubs, while others have plastic in the center and are hollowed out. I typically suggest that my patients get a full-sized roller because it can be used for self-myofascial release and some great core exercises. However, if you travel a lot you may want to get the half size so you can bring it with you.

Often, foam rollers that have grooves and nubs are too aggressive; I tend to prefer the smooth rollers. A medium to high-density roller will last longer and have plenty of pressure. The rollers with plastic in the center can be nice because they may last a little longer, but the foam often doesn’t feel as good.

Foam rolling is not comfortable, but it should not be too aggressive either. As runners, we tend to be on the type-A side, and most of us are referred to as “overachievers.” Bruising yourself on the foam roller because you pushed so hard and worked on a spot so long is not a good idea. Foam rolling is often uncomfortable because it is breaking up adhesions, but it is not supposed to be excruciating.  Here are some tips for successful foam rolling:

  • Spend 20-30 seconds in each area of discomfort

  • Move slowly and deliberately

  • Focus on what you are doing

  • Roll after a run and/or on off days as a form of recovery

Do I really need to do strength exercises?

Yes. The answer is YES!

“How can I be weak? I run all the time.” I hear this statement regularly from my runners, yet 90% of the time when I test their strength they all fail. Sometimes, it is because their muscles are weak or inhibited, or sometimes their muscles aren’t firing in a coordinated pattern. It is important to build strength and coordination in order to move more efficiently and with less likelihood of injury. Additionally, the bigger the muscles you have, the more force you can produce while running. [16] First, you must build your foundation.  This is the part most runners cannot stand. You have to breathe correctly and know what muscles to recruit. Your core is a dynamic system of muscles “Core strength” does not only mean strong abdominal muscles anymore.

Breathing should be incorporated into all strengthening exercises in order to optimally recruit your central stability. Do not expect to “feel the burn” with many of the basic core strength programs. Expect that your form and quality of movement will get better over the first two to four weeks of doing these exercises. If you don’t know where to start, Pilates is a fantastic way to build that deep core strength.

Once you have begun to build your strength training base, begin adding more difficult, running-specific exercises, like planks, lunges, squats, single leg strength, hamstring curls on the ball, dynamic movements and plyometics. You can have your physical therapist, strength trainer or coach help you with this.

This sums up some of the most common questions runners ask. However, if you have any other burning questions, feel free to reach out to any of our running specialist at Precision PT! ________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Herman K, Barton C, Malliaras, Morrissey D. The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review. BMC Medicine. 2012,10:75.

  2. Kay A, Blazevich A. Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012; 44(1): 154-164.

  3. Winchester JB, Nelson AG, Kokkonen J. A single 30-s stretch is sufficient to inhibit maximal voluntary strength. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2009; 80(2): 257-61.

  4. Wilson JM, Hornbuckel LM et al. Effects of static stretching on energy cost and running endurance performance. J Strength and cond Res. 2010 Sep; 24(9): 2274-9.

  5. Youtube video.

  6. Hohenauer E, Taeymans J, Baeyens J-P, Clarys P, Clijsen R (2015) The Effect of Post-Exercise Cryotherapy on Recovery Characteristics: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0139028. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0139028

  7. Ryan M, Harris M, Taunton J. A survey of foot orthoses usage patterns with basketball, soccer, and running athletes. J Footwear Sci. 2011;3:S140-141

  8. Baldassin V, Gomes C, Beraldo P. Effectiveness of prefabricated and customized foot orthoses made from low-cost foam and noncomplicated plantar facsiitis: a randomized control trial. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009;90:701-706

  9. Kripke C. Custom vs. prefabricated orthoses for foot pain. Am Fam Physician. 2009; 79:758-759

  10. Nigg BM, et al. Running shoes and running injuries: mythbusting and a proposal for two new paradigms: ‘preferred movement path’ and ‘comfort filter’ Br J Sports Med 2015;49:1290–1294. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095054

  11. Ryan, M. (2012). Footwear and Foot Orthoses, In  B, Heiderscheit  &  M. Rauh (Eds.), Running (Chapter 5). APTA  Home study course.

  12. Davis, Irene. The Re-emergence of the Minimal Running Shoe. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014;44:775-784.

  13. MacDonald, GZ. An acute bout of self-myofascial release increases range of motion without a subsequent decrease in muscle activation or force. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Mar;27(3):812-21.

  14. Nelson AG, Kokkonen, J and Arnall, DA. Acute muscle stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance. J Strength Cond Res 2005 19: 338-342.

  15. Pearcy GE. Et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. 2015 Jan;50(1):5-13.

  16. Dicharry, J. Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention.  Skyhorse Publishing,  New York City, NY,  2012.


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