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.

What is stretching?
Stretching describes when we flex a muscle to gain a feeling of temporary elongation. It’s a test of our muscle’s elasticity. That’s its ability to distort into a new shape and then return to the original one 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.

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.

Do you need to stretch?

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.

Do you need to stretch before exercising?

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.

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 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.

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 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.

So, should we all be stretching?

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.