How stretching can improve performance
Both types — static and dynamic — prove to be a benefit for all athletes
Myles Schneider, 74, a semi-retired podiatrist, stretches for 60 minutes six times a week. Schneider, who also walks briskly for 45 minutes twice weekly and runs three times a week for 45 minutes in the deep end of a pool, spends more time stretching than he does in other exercises.
An hour of slow stretching may seem excessive, but it works for Schneider.
When he did distance running in his 20s, he stretched for about 10 minutes before and after runs. Since reaching his mid-50s, however, he’s been stretching in the late afternoon or early evening.
“After a few minutes, I feel more energized and no longer tired,” he said. “I also really notice myself relaxing mentally, especially if I’m stressed out about something. Also, I’m certainly more flexible than I was 20 years ago.”
By not doing stretching with his workouts, Schneider skirts the debate over whether slow stretching — known as “static” stretching — helps or hinders performance.
From the 1960s to the late 1990s, fitness professionals believed static stretching before exercise, warmed up muscles and prevented injury.
Later, however, research suggested that it caused muscle fatigue and slower sprinting times in elite athletes. This prompted many to abandon it for “dynamic” stretching, which looks more like real exercise. Today, many experts think a combination of both before a vigorous workout or competition is best.
It’s important to know what happens at the muscles’ cellular level during static stretching.
“Our muscles are made of thousands of muscle spindles — like hairs in a ponytail — that give the muscle cell the ability to stretch and contract by sliding past each other,” said Michael Jonesco, an assistant clinical professor of sports medicine at Ohio State University. “Static stretching pulls on the cell to the max, and can cause some stretch injury that takes time to recover, and can therefore cause a temporary drop in performance.”
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, puts the muscles in motion repetitively, and “is essentially preparing your muscle in a gradually progressive fashion to do the job you want it to do,” said Edward Laskowski, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at the Mayo Clinic.
“For example, you may want to do a front kick in martial arts or in dance. So you would start with some slow and gentle kicks, gradually increasing speed and intensity until you are performing the kicks you normally would.”
After considering hundreds of studies, researchers concluded that a mixed warm-up was the optimal approach. “Brief periods of static stretching, often followed by dynamic periods of warm-up, is a great means to prepare for competition,” Jonesco said.
Moreover, regular static stretching — whether tied to exercise or not — conveys a number of benefits. It increases flexibility, improves circulation and reduces risk of injury, among other things. “I like to think of stretching as a way to optimize the range of motion about your joints,” Laskowski said.
Recent research suggests that
Brief periods of static stretching, often followed by dynamic periods of warm-up, is a great means to prepare for competition.
static stretching helps the elderly and those with impaired mobility because it increases blood flow to the muscles.
Regular stretching improved walking ability among those with peripheral artery disease, a condition that causes painful cramping in the lower extremities. It also might improve mobility for diabetics, who sometimes suffer nerve damage in their extremities. “You are never too old to gain a benefit,” Laskowski said. “Our connective tissue tightens as we get older, so stretching is beneficial.”
He suggests holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds. Don’t bounce, which can cause “micro trauma” to the muscle. Many people stretch both before and after exercise, but Laskowski believes the best time to stretch is after, when the muscles and tissues are warm. Equal flexibility on each side is also important to prevent muscle imbalance, which can lead to injury, he said.
Jonesco agreed. “Be sure to do both sides, right and left,” he said.
He dismisses the lack-of-time argument some people make. “I put some music on or watch a television show while I stretch. I’m relaxed, I’m not rushed, and it gives my muscles a better chance to stretch out,” he said. “I have kept that schedule to this day.”
Recent research suggests that static stretching helps the elderly and those with impaired mobility because it increases blood flow to the muscles.