Ever since tedious P.E lessons at school we’ve been told we need to stretch. Before football practice. After a run. First thing in the morning. At our desk during the day. But as research investigates the effects of stretching, the benefits are becoming a little blurred. So, what’s the deal. Do we really need to stretch?
What is stretching?
It helps to understand what happens to our muscles when we stretch. Stretching describes when we flex a muscle to gain a feeling of temporary elongation. Stretching is a test of our muscle’s elasticity – it’s ability to distort into a new shape and then return to it’s original form once relaxed. That’s the important bit to know. As soon as you relax your muscle, it will return to the exact same length, shape and size that it was before.
Do I need to stretch before I exercise?
The consensus on this from research that looks into the effects of stretching on performance is becoming more one side. It’s an overwhelming no. It is beneficial to warm up before you exercise and perform movements that help increase your heart rate and therefore blood flow to your muscles. But stretching doesn’t do this. In fact, some research suggests that stretching before exercise can actually have a negative impact on your performance.
Does stretching help with muscle soreness?
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 feel sometimes 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.
Does stretching help with flexibility?
Here’s where stretching is helpful. Chronic stretching, which describes continual and regular stretching over longer periods of time has been shown to help increase flexibility. Acute or short term stretching has not. So to benefit from it, stretching has to become part of your workout routine and not an after thought when your muscles are feeling a bit tight.
Does stretching help runners?
This question ties into the last one. Although stretching is not directly beneficial to running performance, it does increase flexibility. Increased flexibility means increased range of motion, which is important in runners. You’ll be hard pressed to find a runner, particularly endurance ones, who never stretch.
What’s the verdict?
Stretching isn’t a miracle worker. It hasn’t been proven to prevent injury, increase performance or aid 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 literature that can’t quite make up its mind, if stretching is your thing: stretch away.