Sunday, March 15, 2009

To Stretch or Not to Stretch? That is the Question.

If you were once involved in high school athletics, chances are you received the old school schpeel about static stretching (the task of maintaining a stretch for 10-20 seconds) and how it "prevents injury." Memories of a chorus of my teammates counting down from 10, stretching in unison while gathered in a circle, still echo in my mind. In fact, for some coaches, static stretching is the very pinnacle upon which a thorough warm-up rests. I, myself, truly detest taking time to stretch before workouts, which is likely why I often end up skipping it altogether. But with recent research searching for the science backing this claim, static stretching is no longer thought to be beneficial, but rather detrimental, to ensuing athletic performance. Fellow stretching-haters, rejoice! (insert Hallelujah chorus)
Perhaps I celebrated too soon. Although studies show static stretching pre-workout negatively affects actions such as jumping, sprinting, reaction time, balance, muscle strength (reducing it by as much as 30%), neuromuscular response, and strength endurance, researchers are now promoting the art of dynamic stretching, found to be exponentially more effective in a true warm-up.

What is Dynamic Stretching?

Dynamic stretching is the act of loosening the muscles and tendons, expanding the joints' ranges of motion, and increasing blood flow. There are a number of exercises that accomplish this task, some of which include straight-leg march, handwalks (informally known as inch-worms), forward lunges, backward lunges, arm circles, squats, heel walking, forward inverted hamstring, vertical power skip, and carioca.

Why is Static Stretching Detrimental to Performance?

Static Stretching, although it elongates the muscle, actually weakens it. It also causes a "neuromuscular inhibitory response," meaning the stretched muscle(s) become(s) less responsive, being counterproductive to the main purpose of a warm-up. This effect lasts for around 30 minutes post-stretching. One may perceive an increased readiness for athletic performance as they can stretch farther and farther as they hold the stretch, but in reality this is merely their increased mental tolerance for the discomfort.

Although the benefits of dynamic stretching put somewhat of a damper on my celebration, as I am impatient and will have trouble incorporating it into my training, I can certainly find happiness in laying to rest pre-workout static stretching.

Is There a Time and Place for Static Stretching?

Although static stretching prior to a training run or race is not recommended, there is something to be said about performing such exercises post-workout. One shoudn't entirely forego static stretching, as it may indeed help prevent injuries when performed after exercise. Of course, it also increases flexibility and range of motion.

In essence, if you haven't already, try incorporating dynamic stretching pre-workout and static stretching post-workout for optimal effects - even if you're a self-proclaimed stretching-hater such as myself.


  1. Thanks for the comment on my blog.

    I've read many articles on stretching and understand both sides, but in the end I decided that I need to do what works for me, and that's stretching before running because it makes my running motion more fluid and it doesn't take as long to start feeling decent during that first mile.
    Then again, I did ballet for a long time when I was younger so I've always been more limber than the average person, though even in ballet you warm up before doing the stretches, which is what I've heard different articles say to do.

  2. All of the pros and cons of stretching really seem to be going around lately. I've found that stretching after running is very beneficial. My rowing coach in college tried to switch us to the active "skipping" type stretching routine, but doing the complicated moves at high speed in a large group of people at 4:30 am turned out to be pretty dangerous. It's scared me ever since.

  3. The Hooray Spring Six Miler is a virtual race for all of the bloggers to be able to go outside on the first day of spring (or sometime during the first week) and run. Just do 6 miles or 6 km during the first week of spring, enjoy your time in the sun surrounded by flowers and robins (hopefully), and then report your time. I'll post everyone's time and a link to the "race report" if written. It's a great way to meet new bloggers, share in a free "race" and I'll hand out tacky logos I make in MS paint to random winners since I don't have any sponsors giving away swag. Maybe next time there will be real prizes. For now it's virtual prizes for a virtual race. :)

  4. I really need to stretch more. All good info, so hopefully this will give me the kick in the pants I need.

  5. i would like to officially know more about stretching. i am at least happy that i stretch now period. i didn't used to but now that i am running more i find i get injured if i don't. so i have my own routine going. i guess the longer i do it/think about it/care, the more knowledge i will accumulate.

  6. I'm not sure about pre-running stretching, but I do know that post-run stretching has been the key to me preventing the injuries that plagued me before I began doing it. So count me in the pro-stretching group.

  7. ugh i hate stretching. i absolutely do not do it pre-workout but i am trying to at least do a few minutes post-workout. i don't really know why i am too lazy to stretch (so hard, right?) but i can go run for a few hours no problem. i don't get it. when my shins flared up recently i really forced myself to do a decent post-run stretch and i think it has helped them feel better quicker (though i have no scientific proof on that).