The Truth About Stretching

I have read a lot of misinformation over the years regarding stretching. Many of us have heard the advice to stretch before physical activities such as running, lifting, practice sessions, or any other workouts. This often gets handed down from coach or trainer to athletes. Years later when the athlete becomes a trainer or coach themselves, the information is handed down again. Similar to many other misconceptions regarding stretching, the idea that performing passive stretching before physical activity will minimize injuries is not only false, but may also be detrimental.

Preventing Injuries

There are two truths regarding injury prevention that are incorrectly combined to create this false bit of advice.

  1. Warming up before a workout correlates with a reduced risk of muscle strains during the following workout.
  2. Individuals with higher levels of flexibility tend to have fewer muscle strains.

Somewhere along the way these two truths were combined into “Stretch before a workout to warm up and prevent injuries.”

Warm up

All that a warm up involves is a gradual raising of the heart rate and therefore body temperature. In a way it “wakes up” the muscles to be ready for the higher level activities that will be coming in the workout. The easiest way to achieve this is by jumping on a piece of cardio equipment at the gym, slowly increasing the intensity over the course of about 15 minutes. By the end you should be at full intensity and pretty toasty. The simplest rule? Make sure that you have broken a sweat before you begin your actual workout. Going for a run? Start with a brisk walk progressing into a light jog. Make sure that you have broken a sweat before you get up to your “cruising pace”. If you are recovering from an injury, performing your basic coordination exercises can be incorporated into your warm up.

Flexibility

Nothing frustrates me more than watching a team perform a nice warm up by jogging a couple of laps around the field only to follow it with plopping on the ground and performing passive stretching. Whatever warm up you just achieved is negated by lying around stretching for 5 minutes! Yes, higher levels of flexibility may be beneficial (I’ll get to this), but you are not going to achieve any additional immediate flexibility by stretching right before your workout. Not to mention, it may even lower the ability of that muscle to perform during the following workout.

What stretching actually achieves

Every person is born with a certain amount of natural flexibility that has to do more with genetics than anything else. Some people are naturally “tight”; others “loose”. Stretching can have some effect on that but the effect is limited. Research studies on the effects of stretching have shown that stretching does not make your muscles any longer (unless you hold the stretch for something like 8 hours). But with consistent stretching your muscles allow you to go farther – so what happens?

Your muscles have a couple different kinds of tension-sensing organs that are natural protective devices. One type of sensory organ is known as the “muscle spindle”. When a certain amount of tension is detected by the muscle spindle, it sends a signal to the nervous system to involuntarily contract the muscle and stop further movement. If the tension is achieved too quickly and unexpectedly, the resulting effect is often a painful cramp or spasm in the muscle. If this occurs during a high load, it may result in a muscle tear or “strain”. What stretching does is make this organ more conditioned to being in that position (in other words – more tolerant). The organ now allows greater range of motion before engaging. Think of stretching as resetting the tolerances of the protective device to allow more range of motion.

The effect occurs over time, not immediately. Studies have shown that the immediate effect of passive stretching is actually a temporary decreased reaction time of the stretched muscle. Not an issue if you are fairly inactive right after stretching. However, it can definitely be a problem if you are about to start a workout.

How to stretch effectively

First off, if you still want to perform some kind of stretching as part of your warm up, make sure that it is dynamic stretching. That means that you are moving quickly yet gently through full range of motion as you increase your cardio intensity. For example performing high stepping before a track workout. Save passive stretching for the end of your workout or during some other relaxing time during the day (like while watching TV).

Passive stretching should be gentle and around 30 seconds in duration. The focus should be on relaxing the muscle into the gentle stretch, think of trying to convince that muscle spindle that it is okay to go into that position. Pull too hard and the spindle will engage therefore fighting the stretch. Not very productive. Perform the stretch once and then move on to something else. Repeat the stretch again later in the day. Twice a day, 30 seconds each. Simple as that.

Unless you really enjoy stretching for an hour twice a day (in that case join a yoga class), only stretch specific problem areas. But what about that truth that I mentioned earlier regarding higher flexibility correlating to lower incidence of muscle strains? Don’t jump to conclusions there. Just being more active will increase your flexibility (the muscle spindle learns a more accurate safe range). The less flexible people with higher incidence of injury were likely just novices and beginners not necessarily because they weren’t stretching enough…