by DeeAnn Dougherty
Reprinted with permission from Race Center Northwest, Aug/Sept 2002

Do I really have to stretch?

Many athletes have struggled with this question because it's often hard to find the time, energy, and inclination to work on flexibility with a regular stretching routine. Is it worth the effort? The evidence seems to suggest yes.

In order to understand flexibility and its benefits, one must first understand human anatomy and physiology. The musculoskeletal system is made up of bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons. A joint is where two bones meet, and ligaments hold the bones together. Muscles connect to bones, often via tendons, with the muscle itself crossing one or more joints. Muscles are made up of connective tissue and muscle fibers that can contract (shorten) and lengthen, and thus control the motion of bones at the joints. If a muscle is tight, it limits the joint's range of motion. There are sensors within muscles and tendons that react to stretching, and if a stretch is quick, the sensors send a message to the brain to contract the muscle in a protective response to avoid injury. This is called the stretch reflex. Slower and gentler stretching minimizes this response.

There are several types of stretching:

Ballistic stretching – quick, forceful stretch that initiates the stretch reflex. An example would be bending over to touch your toes and bouncing up and down. It can cause injury and is usually not recommended, although it may be beneficial if done with special training. Plyometric exercises incorporate ballistic stretching.

Dynamic stretching – usually part of a warmup, it consists of movement of a joint to the limit of its range of motion, gradually increasing speed with no bouncy or jerky movement. An example is standing on one leg and freely swinging the other leg forward and back. It is sport-specific, and allows gradual lengthening of the tissues to prepare for the motions of that sport.

Active stretching – involves slow and controlled movement into the stretch plus contraction of the antagonist (opposing) muscle that you are stretching. An example would be holding a lunge position where the hip flexor muscles at the front of the hip are stretching while the hip extensor muscles in the buttock and back of the thigh are actively contracting. When a muscle lengthens with stretching, it allows more motion at the joint it controls. If the antagonist is not strengthened to control that new motion, the joint may lose some stability. Yoga and Pilates include active stretching.

Passive stretching – relaxed lengthening of a muscle without the contraction of the antagonist. An example would be the typical runner's calf stretch at the wall. This is how stretching has traditionally been done, and is best done after exercise.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) – short isometric contractions of the muscle you are stretching and/or its antagonist. This technique makes use of a phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition, wherein relaxation of a muscle is greater after it or its antagonist has been contracted, allowing more lengthening. PNF is best learned through one-on-one training with a physical therapist or other trained practitioner.

So why stretch?

Runners' muscles need to be strong and flexible to absorb the impact of the foot on the ground and translate that energy into forward momentum. Improving muscle flexibility increases motion at a joint, allowing the runner to cover more ground with each step. Lack of flexibility can cause mechanical problems through compensation. If a tight muscle restricts joint motion, the body will need to find alternate and perhaps less ideal locations for that motion to occur, potentially resulting in injury. Tight calf muscles may cause increased foot pronation (flattening) while running, putting more stress on the bones and soft tissues of the foot. This increases the work required of the leg muscles that control pronation, thus decreasing efficiency and increasing energy costs and risk of injury. In the triathlete, a lack of hamstring flexibility will result in a rounder back while in the aero tuck position, again decreasing efficiency.

Should everyone stretch?

There is a broad continuum of flexibility among individuals, with women tending to be more flexible than men. Studies have shown that those at the extremes tend to be more susceptible to injury. Naturally flexible individuals often benefit from strength work, while stretching is more important for those who are tight as a drum. As we age, there is a loss of suppleness in the connective tissue, increasing the need for stretching.

When should you stretch?

Stretching seems to be most effective when the body's core temperature is elevated by 1.5 to 3.0 degrees because the tissues are more elastic. Studies show an increased injury risk associated with sustained stretching of cold muscles. Rather than using stretching as a warm-up, just ease into your workout, and do some stretching once you are warmed up, especially before a hard workout. Or, stretch after finishing easy workouts. Do not stretch right after a long or otherwise strenuous workout. Stretching may worsen the muscle cell damage often caused by intense or prolonged exercise. It is better to warm-down with a walk, and eat and drink to replenish and rehydrate. There is some evidence that after a hard workout the muscle fibers may heal in a shortened position, so you should stretch, just do it later in the day. You should not stretch if you have a severe muscle or tendon strain. Gentle pain-free movement through the joint's range of motion is better. Once you can stretch without pain, do so, always after a light warm-up.

What is the best way to stretch?

Most studies show that holding a stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and doing it two to five times will improve flexibility. Holding stretches longer may produce even better results. Do it daily so that it becomes part of your workout routine. "Use it or lose it" definitely applies with stretching! "No pain, no gain" does not - remember the stretch reflex! Focus on breathing; your breath is a good indicator of relaxation and ease.

Can you overstretch?

If you stretch cold or too intensely, you may damage tissue and will most likely be sore the following day. Remember, athletes, stretching is not a competitive sport. Your level of flexibility may vary day-to-day depending on your activities, stress, and hydration. Listen to your body.

What about yoga?

Yoga is an excellent way to work not only on flexibility, but strength and balance as well. The physical aspect of yoga uses poses called asanas to unite the body, mind, and spirit. Iyengar is a form of yoga that emphasizes posture and alignment to facilitate balanced movement and increased body awareness. If you are interested in yoga, find a studio with small classes so that you can get individual attention and modifications for any injury or limitation you may have. If you are unable to attend a class, The Runner's Yoga Book by Jean Couch is a great resource.

Is stretching worth the time and effort?

If you want to prevent injury, increase efficiency and freedom of movement, improve body awareness, and feel good, then the answer is a resounding yes!