The truth about stretching
Myles Schneider, 74, a semiretired podiatrist who lives in Reston, Va., 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 actual exercise.
An hour of slow stretching may seem excessive, but it works for Schneider.
When he was into distance running in his 20s, he stretched for about 10 minutes before and after his runs. But he always felt rushed. 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.”
Exercise dogma long has extolled the value of stretching, usually as a warmup before exercise or as a cool-down afterward. By not bracketing stretching to his workouts, Schneider skirts the debate over whether slow stretching — known as “static” stretching — helps or hinders sports performance.
From the 1960s to the late 1990s, fitness professionals firmly believed that static stretching was a useful adjunct before exercise, warming up the muscles and, in doing so, preventing injury. Later, however, research suggested the opposite was true — that it caused muscle fatigue and slower sprinting times in elite athletes. This prompted many of them 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 the best approach.
To understand the controversy, 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 in a coordinated fashion,” said Michael Jonesco, an assistant clinical professor of sports medicine and internal medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. “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.”
A comprehensive review of the scientific literature over the past 15 years tries to put the controversy to rest. After considering hundreds of studies, researchers concluded that a mixed warmup — static stretching along with dynamic stretching — was the optimal approach.
“Brief periods of static stretching, often followed by dynamic periods of warmup, is a great means to prepare for competition,” Jonesco said. Laskowski agreed. “A combination of stretches is likely best,” he said. “Static stretching to ensure equal flexibility side-to-side and to optimize range of motion about the joint, and dynamic stretching as a preparation for a sport or activity, especially one requiring explosive movements.”
Moreover, regular static stretching — whether tied to exercise or not — conveys a number of benefits. It increases range of motion in the joints, enhances 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. “The more motion you have, the better the muscles can work.”
Recent research in animals and an unpublished preliminary study in humans also suggest that static stretching helps the elderly and those with impaired mobility because it increases blood flow to the muscles.
“You are never too old to gain a benefit,” Laskowski said. “Our connective tissue tightens as we get older, so stretching is beneficial as we age.”
For optimal benefit, Laskowski suggested holding a stretch for at least 30 seconds. Don’t bounce, which can cause “micro trauma” to the muscle, he added. Many people stretch both before and after exercise, but given a choice, Laskowski said, he believed the best time to stretch is after, when the muscles and tissues are warm. Symmetry also is important — equal flexibility on each side — to prevent muscle imbalance, which can lead to injury, he said.
Jonesco agreed. “Be sure to do both sides, right and left,” he said. “I also recommend antagonistic muscle pairing as well — front to back, for example, quad and hamstring.”
He dismisses the lack-oftime argument some people make. “Static stretching is simple,” Jonesco said. “It can be done anytime with minimal effort. Do it while in the hot tub or shower. You can do it while sitting in your work chair.”