STRETCHINGby John Howick
Everywhere you look someone has an opinion on how long to hold a stretch, when to stretch and what stretching can or can't do for you. There has been some recent research stating that stretching before or after activity does not prevent post-exercise soreness. Other studies have reported that those who stretched before exercise did not suffer fewer injuries. It gets very confusing and many people give up or use this controversy as an excuse to never stretch. Stretching is not the cure for all ills but it is beneficial if done correctly.
Why do we need to stretch?
After we stop exercising our muscles get stronger but they also tend to get shorter. This can lead to an imbalance where some muscles are too strong and short and others are too weak and long. This imbalance can put abnormal forces around joints and lead to overuse injuries such as rotator cuff tendinosis, patellar tendinosis, Achilles tendinosis, Patellofemoral pain, tennis elbow, and plantar fasciitis. Tight muscles can also change our posture and lead to back pain, neck pain, nerve compression and headaches.
When should we stretch?
For most people, stretching is most important after exercise such as running or cycling when muscles are well warmed up and can be safely stretched without any tearing. If we stretch after activity our muscles have enough flexibility for the next time we exercise. Don't confuse this with preventing post-exercise soreness. Stretching will not stop that "achey" muscle feeling after completing a vigorous work out or doing too much one day.
As a physiotherapist, I see many people with certain muscles that are extremely tight. This inflexibility contributes to their pain and injury. I recommend they stretch 3 times per day as well as after activity. Once their flexibility improves they can stretch every few days for maintenance.
How long should I hold a stretch and how many repetitions should I do?
One research article reports that stretches should be held for approximately 15 seconds and repeated 2-4 times. Another article states that one 15-30 second stretch is usually sufficient. Some people may find that they need to hold a stretch longer or repeat it more often to be effective.
What type of stretching should I do?
Over the years many types of stretching have come in and out of fashion. These include simple prolonged holding of a stretch (static stretching), bouncing into a stretch (ballistic stretching) and contracting a muscle then relaxing it into a stretch (PNF or contract-relax stretching). They all appear to be helpful and effectiveness varies between individuals. PNF stretching has been reported to be slightly more effective but it can be difficult to learn. Ballistic stretching has become taboo over the years because it was reported to lead to injuries while stretching. It may be fine in certain people if they are well warmed up but for most it is probably best avoided without professional supervision. Static stretching is the simplest and works for most people.
How hard should I stretch and what should I feel?
Stretching should not cause intense pain while it is performed and should not cause any discomfort after the stretch is completed. You need to know where the muscle is that you are trying to stretch. If you are stretching your hamstring muscles you should feel tension or pulling in the back of the thigh and knee. If you are feeling stretch or pain in your back you need to adjust your position. Posture is very important when stretching. The body will always try to get into a position that reduces the stretch. This often causes twisting, arching or rounding of the spine making the stretch less effective and possibly causing back pain or over-stretching of other joints. .
What about Yoga?
There are many types of exercise which emphasis stretching. Yoga, Pilates, Dance, Gymnastics, Tai Chi and Martial Arts all have a large flexibility component. They can make stretching fun and also emphasis breathing, coordination and strength. If you do a lot of repetitive exercises such as swimming, running, cycling or weight lifting, try adding one of these other types of exercises to help work on your flexibility and muscle imbalances. Check around first and find a class with a good instructor. All are not created equal and some are better trained. They should tailor the class to your level, avoiding injury.
Points to remember:
- There is not one correct stretching technique for everyone. Find something that works for you.
- Stretch after any repetitive activity when you are well warmed up. Stretch more frequently through the day if needed.
- Hold a stretch a minimum of 15 seconds and repeat if necessary.
- Move into the stretch until you feel a tension or pulling in the target muscle. Hold this until the muscle relaxes and then push a little further until the tension returns. Deep breathing assists relaxation. Work to your own limit. There should be no ego in stretching. Don't compare your flexibility to anyone else.
- Maintain proper posture and alignment and don't let your body cheat.
- Try Yoga, Pilates or other flexibility classes to learn more about stretching, work on your muscle imbalances and have some fun!
- Consult a physiotherapist if you are having troubles with stretching and receive an individualized stretching program.