Starting from P.E at school, we’ve always been told to stretch before exercise. Before football practice. At the start of a run. First thing in the morning.
For lots of us, it has become habitual. Others resent the amount of time it takes up.
We see stretching as tugging on our arms and legs until we feel a satisfying pull in a muscle that makes us feel like we’re helping it.
But as research investigates the effects of stretching, the benefits are becoming a little blurred, especially before exercise. If anything, stretching muscles that aren’t ready for it can cause us harm.
When we think of stretching, it’s often developmental and static stretches we think of. These are the ones where we hold certain positions to feel the stretch, and we’re aiming to test and increase our flexibility by doing so.
The answer here is pretty straight forward. Yes.
If you want to maintain flexibility and muscle health, stretching is essential. In the same way that mobility is integral to your joint health, stretching does the same for your muscles.
Make time for it after you exercise.
This is where it gets a little more complicated. The consensus on this from research that looks into the effects of stretching on performance is pretty one sided. It’s an overwhelming no.
Now, this doesn’t mean it’s not important to warm up before you exercise. Dynamic stretching describes practising movements and muscles you will during your exercise session and doing things to slowly increase your heart rate and blow flow around the body.
Static stretching doesn’t do that. In fact, some research suggests that stretching before exercise can actually have a negative impact on your performance.
Ever woken up the day after a gym session and felt like you’ve been in the ring with Anthony Joshua? DOMs or ‘delayed-onset muscle soreness’ is the pain you sometimes feel the days after a workout. It’s thought to be caused by ‘micro-trauma’ to your muscles. But nobody is really sure. What does seem more clear though, is that stretching in an attempt to relieve or reduce this has no impact.
This question ties into the last one. Although stretching is not directly beneficial to running performance, it does increase flexibility. Increased flexibility and mobility mean increased range of motion, which is important in runners. Your stride and posture will be much better as a result. There are lots of key stretches that runners do, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a runner, particularly endurance ones, who never stretch.
Stretching isn’t a miracle worker. It cannot completely prevent injury on its own, increase performance, or aid your recovery. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Stretching is good for flexibility. It’s good for your heart. And it makes you feel good. There’s a reason it’s integral to the practice of yoga. So, in a world of research that can’t quite make up its mind, if stretching is your thing: stretch away.