Rarely has there been so much conflicting advice on one topic. So much of the advice is here-say and very little is proved. Physiotherapists and Sports Therapists will often give conflicting advice on what each of them feel is the best way and why. Here we discuss the pros and cons of stretching and what research there is and also let you into a secret to make your stretching more effective.
As The Zebra Said To The Lion!
Have you ever seen a David Attenborough documentary from Africa following a pack of Lions as they hunt a Zebra? As the lions stealthily sneak up on their pray and finally spring the trap. Have you ever seen a Zebra turn round and ask for 5 minutes stretching time so they’re ready for the chase?! So as humans why…
Should I Bother Stretching?
Many of us don’t. There’s little evidence to say that we should. However, there’s even less evidence to say we shouldn’t. The difficulty with research into stretching is that it’s very hard to make the test objective – that is to say measurable – and even harder to prove anything categorically. So lets make this post more about feeling and less about measuring. I’ll interject with relevant research as we go.
Does It Make Any Difference?
Lets continue to search for inspiration from the animal kingdom. Our close, and very agile, friends cats. Here’s a brief video of how they do it – I know they’re quite clever, but I’m not sure there’s too much conscious thought going on:
So it’s not just us making it up then. There’s certainly something instinctive about stretching. It’s just very hard to prove what it’s doing and how best to do it.
Many years ago I was attending a lecture by one of the leading Physiotherapists in the country. Other than assessing all injuries in the Premier League (Did you know more training ground injuries happen during light training than heavy training?) he had a bee in his bonnet about stretching. The conclusion of his research was that 2 hours after stretching any gains in muscle length were gone. Which makes you think should we bother?
The Yogi Knew What They Were Doing All Along!
On the flip side lets consider people who do yoga and Pilates for a prolonged period. They all seem nice and bendy. What about dancers, particularly those who start from a young age. They’re really bendy! So if stretching can’t make a difference to actual muscle length what does it do?
We could also take the much talked about experience of Ryan Giggs who attributed his prolonged playing career to his strict yoga regime. He clearly felt there was something in it. It just seems that most proposed benefit from stretching is anecdotal – it’s just very hard to prove. For now lets just accept that stretching feel good and move on.
My regular Blog readers will know all about Anatomy Trains. In brief this is a series of muscular and fascial (connective tissue) links that give us better understanding of how muscles affect each other across the whole body, not just locally to their primary function.
Anyway, it turns out that this “new” research shows how close yoga has been to the anatomical truth. And why shouldn’t it? Something that has been developed over centuries by lots of people comparing notes on what “feels” good must be good for us surely? N.B. This is not entirely true… the true origin of yoga was so to enable people to be flexible enough to stay in meditation positions for hours on end – so I am informed by one of my Yogi clients.
When Should I Stretch?
So hopefully you know not to stretch when cold right? The best time to stretch it is generally agreed is after a bit of a warm up when the blood is pumping through the muscles. However, if your event is explosive, so any kind of running or lots of recoil required, then don’t stretch before the event! There’s an increasing amount of evidence to show that we need muscles to be taught to get the maximum amount of force out of them. Have you ever seen Usain Bolt stretching before a race?
Stretching after exercise is a great time to stretch to aid recovery. It is thought to stop your muscles staying short and tight after exercise. This is especially true in sports you specialise in. For myself swimming. Repeated exercise doing the same things lead to muscular adaptations. Most of these are good. But your strength can become your weakness. Check out our Sports page to know more about the adaptations in Your Sport and how to deal with them.
What Should I Stretch?
Now here’s the thing. You would think it would be the muscle that is tight. But that could well be the wrong thing to do. As we discuss in our post on Achilles tendons this could actually be detrimental. Injuries aside the reason for this is what we call Stretch Reflex. This is the mechanism by which muscles actually contract if you take them too far. So potentially by stretching a muscle lots you’re actually going to make it tighten!
So what should you stretch if not the muscles that’s tight? Well that’s when you need to speak to us. With the right biomechanical knowledge you can understand the interaction of the muscles and release or stretch the muscles that are maintaining the tightness elsewhere. This isn’t that easy and you need to know what you’re doing. However, if you have a look at our injury avoidance guide for swimmers there’s some nice generic exercises in there that will be good for everyone.
What Should I Feel?
A “nice” stretch. Sounds fluffy I know! But this is the advice we give to our clients. You shouldn’t stretch to pain. This will be a revelation to many of you our there. “If it’s hurting me it must be doing good!” Wrong. We’ve seen so many people injure themselves further this way. Even if you don’t injure yourself stretch reflex will kick in and the muscles will not relax.
Always stretch to the point that you feel the stretch and hold for about 30 seconds or so. After 30 seconds the stretch should have subsided somewhat. If it has stretch a bit further and hold this for another 30 seconds. This protocol will avoid the recoil in muscles caused by the stretch reflex. The long duration will also enable the brain to catch up with the new length of the muscles also. Neuromuscular adaptation if you want to get technical. I’ve yet to read any research to back this up but it just feels right when you do it this way. Give it a try and see what you think.
What If I Don’t Get Any More Flexible?
WARNING: Shameless plug alert! Obviously you need to come and see us! Why would you not want to! In all seriousness we like to categorise sensations as tightness, restrictions or limitations. If you have a bit of tightness somehwhere – so what. As long as it’s not affecting your function it’s not going to make that much difference and a nice stretch will sort it out.
Its the one that don’t release or are long standing that cause the problems. There is a specific reason for the tightness. This can lead to loss of function and injury. This is where we get excited! Finding where exactly on your body this limitation is caused is the real challenge. We all have them. Even the Pilates and Yoga instructors that we treat. We have areas we are not as supple in – the true art is identifying why that is and then removing it.
As we mentioned the research is not conclusive. We suggest you go with what makes you feel good. If you are stiff as a board then you might want to start thinking about doing more. If you’re already bendy but are annoyed by a few “weak” areas then you might want to think about doing things a bit differently. Why are those areas tight?
If you are you having injury problems and / or you feel like your performance is being compromised then you definitely need to think about doing something different.
If you have any questions on stretching or would like us to help you be more bendy for well being or injury avoidance, prevention and treatment than give us a call on 01273 921831 or mail us at info@BrightonSportsTherapy.co.uk and we’ll be happy to help.
This post first appeared on our Swindon site.