All of us stretch, some more, some less. Stretching is a natural occurrence and we often stretch instinctively, for example after a long sleep, after having spent time in tight spaces or in uncomfortable positions. By stretching we straight away feel more awake, but also more relaxed.
When we stretch, our muscles lengthen, muscle tension is reduced and that tightness or stiffness melts away.
The most common forms of stretching are 1) static stretching, where you stretch the muscle and joint to their maximum and hold the position for a set period of time, and 2) dynamic stretching, a movement stretch.
Over the past couple of years the science community has investigated the role of stretching in areas of, for example, pain management, exercise and athletic performance, as a prevention of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), flexibility and rehabilitation.
Stretching and Performance
In a review from 2016, Behm et al investigated the role of stretching on performance and the risk of injury. By analysing over 150 studies they found that stretching before exercise, that was either power-speed based or strength-based, reduced performance.
This reduction in performance is due to the reduced tension of the muscle as it lengthens during the stretch, and therefore it no longer has the right tension to create as powerful contractions, reducing the amount of force produced and performance. However they also found that not all types of stretching have this effect. Dynamic stretching actually resulted in a small increase in performance. A dynamic stretch is a movement stretch, which involves moving the active joint through the full range of motion, for example by swinging your leg forward to stretch out the hamstring and the hip joint.
The dynamic stretch increases blood flow to the muscle, decreases viscosity and increases the temperature of the muscle, and since it is often performed in a similar movement to the coming exercise the body is better at handling the exercise and therefore performs better.
Many of us like to stretch before heading out on a run or starting an exercise session. It feels good to release some of that tension ahead of the training session. If you are not too worried about your sprint times, the heaviest weight that you can lift that session then you should not worry about using static stretching ahead of a session. If you on the other hand are an athlete and performance is at the top of your list, then choosing dynamic stretching exercises will get you ready for your next training session or competition.
And then again, the effects of any stretching lasts roughly 15 minutes and after that your muscles are ready to perform at the top of their game again.
Does Stretching Reduce Injury Risk?
Yes it does! One reason why stretching has been recommended to athletes and people with active lifestyles, is that it reduces the risk of muscle and tendon injuries. It doesn’t matter what type of stretching but stretching is most effective for injury prevention in sprint and short distance running exercises. If however the stretches are performed in a rush or carelessly there is a risk of muscle tares, so when stretching take it slow, and listen to the feedback from your muscles.
There is a connection between the total stretching time and injury risk- the longer you stretch the bigger the protective effects get.
Stretching and Flexibility
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that stretching increases the range of motion and flexibility of muscles and joints. Stretching for as little as 10-30 seconds can increase the flexibility of the hip joint or the hamstring. However to make this permanent you need to stretch often.
Stretching not only increases flexibility through the reduction of the tensions in the muscles, it also builds up your stretch tolerance. This means that the more you stretch, the more used to it you get, and can therefore tolerate the feeling of the stretch better, hence allowing you to stretch deeper and for longer.
So for performance:
- Stretch after your training sessions to release muscle tension.
- Alternatively perform dynamic stretches before the training to increase blood flow to the muscles you will be using.
- The longer the stretching session the better the protection against muscle injury.
And for flexibility:
- As little as 10-30 seconds of stretching will increase your range of motion.
- Perform often for lasting effects.
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