I’m often asked what I think is the best way to stretch. Stretching is a way to feel embodied, alive, awake and it forms a pleasant part of our morning routine. It’s a lovely feeling to get up in the morning, look outside at a blue sky and stretch out, cat-like. However, when we stretch for a particular reason, such as running faster, avoiding injury or being able to lift more weight, we may find that we run into problems.
As we are about to see, the only reason to stretch is for the feeling of stretching itself. More than twenty years of evidence suggests that it doesn’t really seem to accomplish anything specific and in some cases it can even be dangerous.
Why do we stretch?
People most often say they stretch in the hope that stretching helps them to be more flexible, which is assumed to be a good thing in itself, an idea which is perpetuated by the media and the movie industry. Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly important to have enough flexibility to carry out our activities of daily living, like tying your shoelaces or picking something up from the floor. But you can easily accomplish these tasks without being able to bend down with straight legs to touch your toes. You don’t need to be able to perform a full back-bend to turn off a plug switch. Some flexibility is good; research shows that too much is probably not necessary.
Most people believe that stretching helps with prevention of injury and post-injury muscle soreness (DOMS), performance enhancement and warming up. They all sound like good reasons, but when scientists have looked more closely these reasons are are all pretty questionable.
What can stretching (probably) not do?
Let’s start with all the things that stretching can’t do. There has been loads of research over the past couple of decades exploring this in depth, and what I present below is a snapshot.
The list of what stretching can’t do is very similar to the list of what it is typically thought to be able to do.
- Enhance performance (1, 2)
- Pre-exercise warmup (1)
- Prevent injury (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Oh and 7)
- Prevent post-exercise discomfort (DOMS) (1, 2)
So what can stretching do?
Stretching does increase flexibility. If you do it enough. Every day. Tick this box if you’re a yoga practitioner, acrobat or a contortionist, or if you just want to do this as a personal challenge. If not, breathe out.
What actually happens when you stretch
Believe it or not, it’s highly likely that your muscles do not change length! Wow. This paper suggests that all that changes is your sensitivity to muscle stretch. You just get used to the feeling of your muscles, tendons and joint capsules being stretched and it no longer produces the same pain response in your sensory and proprioceptive brain regions.
What’s right for you?
It’s all a question of what activities you do. If you’re a sprinter or in fact any kind of runner, then stretching is usually the exact opposite of what you need to do. Stretching reduces running economy, meaning that the body becomes less efficient at the task of running if you have stretched beforehand. This is probably to do with communication between the brain and the joints and tendons (proprioception). This communication is muddled by stretching because your brain is led to believe that there is more joint range of motion than there should be, and as a result its instructions to your muscles are not optimised.
On the other hand, if you’re a ballet dancer who needs to be able to do the splits, you just have to put up with that slight reduction in strength after stretching in order to achieve your goals. As a dancer you need both flexibility and strength.
Now, if you play a contact sport the situation is a little different; if you have too much flexibility your muscles won’t generate as much explosive power when you have to change direction quickly. But if you have too little flexibility you may be more at risk for strains and tears as the energy from an impact needs to be absorbed by your muscles. It’s a balance, and that also depends on how flexible you are to begin with. A rugby prop is likely to be a strong/inflexible type of morphology, whereas a football winger will be likely more flexible and less sturdy.
A different type of stretch
Totally separate but worthy of mention is the topic of “therapeutic stretching”. These are stretches which are performed by someone else who is (hopefully) highly trained to do so.
These include muscle energy technique (MET) and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) which have a sound research base. They are used by osteopaths, sports massage therapists and physiotherapists to treat injured muscle by using controlled activation and inhibition of muscles to restore normal function. They are very different because they utilise a defined period muscle contraction followed by a period of passive stretching (i.e. someone else stretches your relaxed muscle). Nerve stretching is also different, and will be covered in a future post.
For most healthy people it’s as simple as this: if you like to stretch, then stretch (but never before exercise) and if you don’t like it, don’t let it worry you. Warm up is essential (covered in depth in this post), so warm up well before you do any kind of exercise. 5-10 minutes of dynamic movements prepare the muscles and the brain’s premotor cortex for the activity you’re about to perform. Warming up properly does reduce the likelihood of injury substantially, though to what extent isn’t yet known. If you want to discuss the right warm up for your specific needs, drop in and talk to us.