Time to Read
Points of Interest
- A brief history
- What does the research say?
- When should we stretch?
- How should we stretch?
Stretching has been widely accepted as an important part of training, but the debate over what kind of stretching, when we should stretch and how we should stretch has been ongoing for years.
Stretching has fallen in and out of favour over time, but thanks to a series of studies looking into the physiological and performance effects of stretching we can now start to make effective recommendations around good stretching practice.
In today's article we are going to look at what the research says about stretching – what it is useful for, when we should do it and how we should be stretching.
A brief history
For decades stretching was done before and after training an event, but with little direction or purpose. It was an accepted wisdom that it was useful to ‘prevent injury' and was part of a ‘warm up'.
As a concept, it was given more attention from the 1980's onward when sportsmen and women became more performance focused.
In the early 90's, which was the dawn of the modern era of sports science, training methods meant that athletes were becoming bigger, quicker and more powerful, but unfortunately, more injury prone. This wasn't a huge issue in the endurance world, but in team sports such as football it was a big deal – players were now worth millions, so you wanted them on the pitch, not the physio room!
With muscle injuries on the rise, efforts were made to investigate the cause and research into effective warm-ups and shed some light on stretching.
What does the research say?
Originally, stretching occurred as part of the warm-up, often before any warming of the muscles had actually taken place. A cold muscle was stretched. We now know that to be a potentially questionable practice, but a couple of decades back it was seen as a perfectly acceptable part of pre-event warm up.
This may have contributed to more than a few muscle injuries and performance issues over the years. If we take a look at the 2019 study into ‘Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Mechanical Properties Result From both Muscle-Tendon Stretching and Muscle Warm-Up' we see that dynamic stretching pre-event may counteract muscle warm up effects on account of its performance-reducing effects.
That practice has largely disappeared from high-level athletes warm-ups, but when exactly should we be stretching?
When should we stretch?
A significant body of research is now pointing to the post-exercise benefits of stretching, rather than the pre-exercise benefits. As the previous study highlights, pre-event stretching may have a disruptive effect on performance, so should be avoided. Instead, pre-event mobility is improved with cyclic stretching and foam rolling rather than stretching.
Further evidence for post-exercise stretching being useful has been noted in this article, charting improvement of Achilles tendon flexibility and reduction of injury risk . It suggests that effective post-exercise stretching can reduce the possibility of injury by improving flexibility and range of movement at a given joint.
Additional stretching knowledge has been developed further with the concept of ‘prehab' – by introducing exercises and specific stretches, athletes can avoid injury risk and prevent potential injuries. This 2019 study showed a significant reduction in the incidence of injury to baseball players.
So the conclusion of ‘when' to stretch can be answered with a resounding ‘after exercise or competition, never before'.
How should we stretch?
There has been a series of changes in stretching methods over the years. We've gone from static stretching to more dynamic approaches such as ‘cyclic stretching (also known as bouncing), ballistic stretching, where a limb is moved at speed to along the full length of its range of movement and finally, PNF stretching (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) where a muscle is stretched to discomfort, then muscle is contracted, released and stretched further.
The research around all of them suggests there is no ‘best' practice – they all have their benefits. From a performance point of view, PNF stretching is probably viewed as the best, with studies like this one showing positive improvements associated with the method, even if the researchers admit they're not entirely sure as to how the approach works so well!
What is clear is that the type of stretching you perform is less important than the consistency with which you do it. A regular stretching practice, be it in the form of yoga or a dedicated stretching session is an integral part of avoiding injury and improving tissue health.
Just make sure you stretch a warm muscle – some very light movement before you stretch, just to promote blood flow to the muscles and soft tissues. The KYMIRA Infrared Training Range is perfect for stretching in as the fabric improves blood flow to the tissues, making them more supple and able to stretch.
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