Stretching, as defined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association, is “the application of force to musculotendinous structures in order to achieve a change in their length, usually for the purposes of improving joint range of motion, reducing stiffness or soreness, or preparing for activity.”
From what I’ve gathered, there is mixed advice on whether stretching post-exercise is helpful for reducing muscle soreness and enhancing recovery. Although, it is clear that “losses in flexibility can result in a reduction of movement.” I feel that if stretching works for you, then stick with it. I do a few stretches after my runs and I think it helps keep my muscles flexible. Of course, there are other reasons to stretch, such as increasing range of motion or for rehabilitation.
First, I’d like to go over contraindications to stretching. A contraindication is “any condition that renders some particular movement, activity, or treatment improper or undesirable.”
- fracture site that is healing
- acute soft-tissue injury
- post-surgical conditions
- joint hypermobility (easily moves beyond normal range)
- area of infection
- hematoma or other trauma
- pain in affected area
- restrictions from doctor
- prolonged immobilization of muscle or connective tissue
- presence of osteoporosis or rheumatoid arthritis
- joint swelling
- history of prolonged corticosteroid use
If you have any of these conditions, it’s important to get clearance from your medical provider before stretching in order to prevent injury.
There are several different types of stretches and each technique is helpful at different phases of your workout. The stretch you use is dependent upon your goals and the benefits you are trying to gain.
Self-Myofascial Release: Using a foam roller or similar device, this technique applies pressure to tight areas of fascia (fibrous tissue) trying to relieve tension and improve flexibility. Initial evidence suggests that foam rolling helps decrease tightness and improve range of motion. It is suggested to foam roll pre or post-exercise.
Static Stretching: This is probably the most common. You hold a stretch to the point of tension for 15-60 seconds. Static stretching can be performed actively or passively. An active stretch is when you apply added force to increase the intensity. Passive is when a partner or device is used for added force for the stretch. Static stretching is best done after a workout when your muscles are warm and elastic.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): This is when you stretch and contract the muscle being targeted. There are three basic types: hold-relax, contract-relax, and hold-relax with contraction. PNF is a more advanced technique and is commonly used in rehabilitation or clinical settings.
Dynamic Stretching: This stretch takes joints through their ranges of motion while continually moving. These are great to do before running, or any sport, because you can imitate the movement pattern that is specific to your activity. Some dynamic stretches to do before running are leg swings, high knees, hip circles, and walking lunges.
Ballistic Stretching: This is a dynamic stretch that includes a bouncing motion. This type of stretching can be good for some athletes, but it can lead to injury. The bouncing can push beyond your normal range of motion, therefore ballistic stretching is not widely favored.
Active Isolated Stretching: These stretches are never held for more than 2 seconds, then you release the stretch, return to starting position and repeat for several repetitions. You increase the stretch a few degrees at a time, which lets the muscle gradually adjust. This zeros in on the muscle and lengthens it. These stretches are usually done in sets of a specified number of repetitions. (An example is in the picture above)
Flexibility and improving range of motion is especially important for athletes. Regular stretching may improve performance and lower the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. I find that the older I get, the more important it is for me to incorporate stretching into my running routine.
Keep in mind that stretching should never be painful. Also, remember to breathe!
Do you incorporate stretching into your routine?
What is your favorite stretch?
Have a great weekend!
*References: ACE Personal Trainer Manuel; ACE’s Essentials of Exercise Science*