I was part of the jogging boom of the late ’70s, when most people thought running was the only ingredient needed to get into tip-top shape. Well, running plus stretching. Lots and lots of stretching before we dared set foot on the pavement.
The assumption was, first of all, that stretching would compensate for the muscle-shortening effects of the repetitive movements of running. If you’ve ever seen an inflexible runner who’s been at it for a few decades and is now limited to stiff, choppy little strides, you’ll know what I mean.
Stretching was also supposed to be our primary means of avoiding injury. So we stretched our hamstrings, calves and quads with a vengeance in hopes of avoiding a muscle tear.
But these days things are not so clear-cut. In fact, I count at least three schools of thought. The old school says static stretching before exercise or competition is still the way to go. The second group—backed up by a load of scientific studies—argues for stretching warm, post-workout muscles, not cold ones.
A third group, also made up of scientists, says that stretching before exercise doesn’t hurt . . . but it can’t offer any compelling evidence that it helps.
In a minute, I’ll summarize some significant findings. But first I want to define a couple of terms.
Not all stretches are created equal
What we typically think of as stretching is properly called static stretching. The American College of Sports Medicine defines it nicely as putting a muscle in a position that creates a slight pull but no pain and holding for 10 to 30 seconds (or more, especially if you’re older). Static stretches are typically repeated two to four times per session.
The key word is holding: There’s no rapid movement in a static stretch. A classic static stretch for the hamstrings, for example, would be to sit on the ground with legs straight in front of you, then lean forward from the hips until you feel the stretch in the back of your thighs.
During Jane Fonda’s reign as our fitness queen, ballistic stretching came into vogue. Think rapid, bouncing movements that attempt an increasingly greater range of motion. Give it a pass: It produces poor results and can get you injured.
There’s passive stretching, in which another person (or a tool such as an elastic band) positions your body and applies pressure in order to improve your flexibility.
And finally we have dynamic stretching, which is frequently prescribed for athletes. The idea is to actively move a joint through the full range of motion required for a particular sport. So, for instance, sprinters will do exaggerated walking knee lifts to help prepare for workouts and competition.
One other important point: Warming up and stretching aren’t the same thing, although stretches might be part of your warm-up. The goal of stretching is to increase a joint’s range of motion. The purpose of the warm-up is, literally, to raise your body’s core temperature and increase blood flow to the muscles.
What the research says
So what kind of stretching is worth your while—and when should you do it?
Static stretching is easy to learn and do, requires no helpers or special equipment, is unlikely to cause injury if done correctly, and is proven to enhance range of motion.
Yet the majority of studies conducted over the past 10 years tell us the least effective time to perform it is just before an exercise session. Here are some of the findings:
* Stretching is more effective when muscles are warm; cold muscles are more injury-prone.
* Static stretching before training decreases strength, power output and agility. Studies on gymnasts, sprinters, lifters, soccer players and other athletes bear this out.
* And if your goal is greater flexibility, research shows no advantage to performing your stretches before rather than after exercise.
To summarize: Stretching afterward is safer, won’t reduce your strength or power output, and enhances flexibility just as much as if you’d done it beforehand.
As for me, running is no longer part of my routine. But I almost always stretch after strength training, and I find it’s a really relaxing way to cool down.
How about you—when do you like to stretch? Please leave a comment below.