Should we really stretch?

stretch_psoas1.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Do you stretch before a run, after, or both? How do you know exactly which stretches are best for your body, for your sport? Most of us don’t stretch by choice….it hurts. And if you read much about the topic, its easy to see not everyone is in agreement.

According to one website, stretching will increase circulation, boost energy and metabolism, increase coördination, balance, flexibility and range of motion, reduce pain and muscle tension, improve mental health and posture, improve athletic performance and relieve stress. Whew!

A few years ago I read all 921 pages of the Lore of Running, by Dr. Noakes. He said, “There are three main arguments in favor of stretching: it reduces the risk of injury, promotes less muscle soreness after exercise and improves athletic performance. However, the cold light of scientific investigation has not been kind to these traditional dogmas.”

A 2000 study by Shrier and Gossal was referenced by Dr. Noakes, which I found on a Canadian-based website for runners. The two concluded there was no published evidence to suggest that regular stretching improves running performance. Nor does it seem to reduce the risk of injury or post exercise muscle soreness.

When muscles are stretched, they creep and eventually relax under the stress. Unlike an elastic band that stretches immediately to a final length, the length of muscles stretch gradually. If muscles are stretched for 30 seconds every day, acute changes are retained and enhanced so that range of motion allowed by the stretched muscles are increased.

Stretching improves the range of motion. Period. Range of motion is very important for professional athletes but maybe not so much for the recreational athlete. Warm-up prevents injury….stretching has no effect on injury.

If injury prevention is the primary objective (eg, recreational athletes who consider performance a secondary issue) and the range of motion necessary for an activity is not extreme, evidence suggests that athletes should drop the stretching before exercise and increase warm-up. But not all warm-ups work for all muscle groups.

Running appears to decrease the stiffness of the calf muscles but not the hamstring muscles. Stretching added after warm-up decreases hamstring muscle stiffness; however, the effect lasts less than 30 minutes, even if exercise continues after stretching.

So what are we to do?

My husband exercises 4 or 5 times a week – more often depending on his work schedule. I can’t say I ever remember him stretching. Ever. On the other hand, I stretch before I run and sometimes a little all day. I lie in bed, sit in a chair or at the dining table and give my Achilles’ tendons a gentle stretch for several minutes at a time. We stretch before Tai Chi and an hour later before Kung Fu.

Massage therapists are particularly helpful in advising how to stretch problem areas. I have been given invaluable tips from massage therapists to resolve issues – advice I use to this day.

The right answer seems to be to create your own strategy. Do what works for you.

The Mayo Clinic website says this:

Stretching can be a key part of your exercise regimen. Stretching may increase flexibility and improve the range of motion of your joints. Before stretching, warm up with five to 10 minutes of light activity. Better yet, reserve stretching for after a workout. Keep stretching gentle. Don’t bounce. If you feel pain, you’ve stretched too far. Hold a stretch for about 30 seconds, then switch sides and repeat. If you have a problem area or the stretch is particularly helpful for pain or discomfort, you may benefit from repeating the stretch. If you have any health conditions or injuries, talk to your doctor or physical therapist about which stretches are right for you.

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