How and when to stretch is a widely discussed topic within the athletic and active population. Should I stretch before training? Should I stretch after training? How long should I stretch for? We’ve all asked these questions at some point in our lives and we actively seek advice from peers. However, the more people we seek advice from the more confused we get. Thankfully some of the advice is evidence based, but unfortunately sometimes it’s based on nothing. The point being is that the advice you get will vary from person to person. Here I’d like to give a quick summary of what is currently known in the research world to hopefully positively change or reinforce your own stretching protocols.
Types of Stretching?
So before discussing the research in this area, it would be best to give an overview of the different types of stretching that can be performed. In broad terms, stretches can either be STATIC or DYNAMIC. A static stretch consists of holding a singular position for a period of time without any further movement. Whereas a dynamic stretch is the opposite, the stretch is performed through constant movement and a position is never held for a period of time. I should mention that there are other types and subcategories of stretching but these will be discussed in future blogs, so for the sake of this blog we will use the terms static and dynamic.
Stretching Before & After Training?
For years static stretching was seen as an essential component of a warm up to prevent injury and improve performance. However, now there is plenty of research out there to suggest that static stretching is harmful on subsequent training performances. It is thought that holding a static stretch for any period of time reduces a muscles elasticity and ability to generate power up to 24 hours post-stretching. Studies have reported significant negative effects on sprint, jump, and other power related activity following static stretching (up to 24 hours before, but realistically 2 hours before). We therefore recommend leaving static stretching until after you’ve completed your training session when your body temperature and muscle elasticity is high. So, if we cant use static stretching during our warm up, what can we do? The answer is dynamic stretching. Before training, up to 30 minutes and as little as 5 minutes, dynamic stretching is recommended as it has been extensively reported to enhance/facilitate subsequent training performance (mainly power-based activities). The longer durations of dynamic stretching have been related to greater improvements in subsequent performance. The theory behind these findings is that dynamic stretching is thought to increase body temperature, short term muscle activation ability, and stimulation of the nervous system which leads to facilitated power performance. Additionally, dynamic stretching is more effective if the stretches replicate, or are similar to, the movements performed during the subsequent training session. Therefore, we recommend performing training-specific dynamic stretches (up to 30 minutes but as little as 5 minutes) to facilitate subsequent activity. We also recommend avoiding static stretching for at least 2 hours before training.
Stretching to Improve Flexibility?
Stretching to improve flexibility is an interesting topic, I find that a lot of people underestimate stretching. As most of you already know, to make significant improvements in your sporting ability your body needs to be put under stress and pushed beyond the ‘comfort zone’ through training. However, most people see stretching as an accessory exercise that only requires 5 minutes at the end of a training session and then wonder why they aren’t seeing improvements in flexibility. Stretching is a session in itself and should be carried out with the same intensity as a training session, if improvements are desired. Training and stretching should follow the same principles; train hard & see improvements, stretch hard & see improvements. To support what I’m saying there is research out there explaining that stretching at 50% max intensity (without pain) has almost no effect on flexibility, whereas, stretching at 100% max intensity (without pain) significantly improves flexibility. Also, the longer a stretch is held for (up to 2 minutes), the greater the improvements will be, but smaller improvements can still be seen from as little as 15-30 second holds. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me telling everyone to go crazy and jump into these really intense stretching sessions lasting hours in duration. Be smart, treat it like training, gradually build the intensity level and duration like you would with your normal training and you will see improvements.
Stretching for Injuries
Considering I’m a Sports Therapist, I thought should really make a quick mention about how stretching effects injuries. Currently, all research suggests stretching doesn’t prevent injury whatsoever. I don’t believe that is 100% true, stretching can help reduce injury by preventing the dysfunction occurring that leads to the injury developing. So OK, technically stretching can’t improve injuries directly but they can prevent injuries indirectly!
So, this was my own short review of general stretching and how it applies to different scenarios. Please let me know what you think & if you have any questions relating to this or anything else just drop me a message and I’ll get back to ASAP.
Finally, thanks for reading!