We’ve all heard that you should stretch before and after exercise, it’s the basis of every high school PE lesson. If you’re feeling a bit guilty now and racking you brains for your last stretching session, you’re probably not alone! How many of us actually do? And is it even that important?

We are talking here about stretching to help with injury prevention and to avoid muscle soreness post exercise. Not, stretching or conditioning for a specific injury.

bicycle-384566_1280You plan a 30-minute run or cycle into your day, you expect to be exercising for 30 minutes and then back to chores or watching tv immediately after this, we don’t often calculate in the warm up, cool down and stretching time into this block. I must admit I am also guilty of not scheduling in stretching, and sometimes I really don’t feel like I need to stretch after exercise. But unfortunately, I am not invincible and when I am struggling to walk down the stairs the day after a big gym session I curse and blame hindsight. But if I had stretched, would it even have made a difference?

A review in 2011 (Herbert. RD, et al.,) found that across 12 different studies pre-and- post stretching did make a difference and reduced post soreness over a one week period. However, these differences were not considered big enough to be clinically relevant. In fact, most research supports that stretching does not change or improve muscle soreness or DOMS. Brilliant.

Stretching can be defined as ‘the application of force to a musculotendinous structure to achieve a change their length’ (Arminger, P, Martyn, MA.,2010). You are aiming to increase the flexibility of the muscle-tendon unit to promote joint range, better performance and decrease the risk of injury.

Muscles need elastic energy to be able to compensate and accommodate for high impact, quick changes in direction. The muscle should be able to react quickly to this which if it can, could reduce the risk of injury. Sports that involve a lot of bouncing and high intensity changes in muscle length (football, badminton) would benefit from stretching so that muscles are prepared to do this. However, it may not make a difference with running or cycling which are generally low impact (Witvrouw, E., et al, 2004).

This would explain why Chris Hoy, the Olympic cyclist, says he rarely stretches unless it is combined with deep soft tissue massage, but Novak Djokovic, the tennis champ, has said he spends a lot of time stretching.

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We do know clinically and through research that stretching can increase joint range of motion (Harvey, L., 2002). If we can increase our joint range, it can reduce the stresses on muscles and therefore surely can help to prevent injury.

The American College of Sports Medicine guidelines advise adults should do flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week to improve range of motion – and so do I!

It’s clearly not 100% scientifically sound, but stretching does make sense and flexibility training will increase flexibility. We just don’t know how much. Stretching is not just for after a swim, hockey game or half marathon. It’s important to consider stretching after sitting at a desk for 8 hours, an afternoon gardening or standing all day teaching a class. Your muscles are working and there are continuous strains being put on your joints here. So, give them a chance to relax and lengthen after.

Find that time to go through a stretching routine, it can take as little as 10 minutes! If you’re concerned about any stretches or are interested in the most effective ones – always ask your therapist.

My top stretching tips:

1. Always stretch both sides
2. Don’t push into a painful range, you are aiming to feel mild discomfort and stop there
3. Don’t stretch cold muscles, warm up with a walk or some gentle aerobic movements first
4. Don’t bounce on a stretch, go to the point of discomfort and hold
5. Do hold for between 15-30 seconds
6. Do include all the main muscle groups
7. Treat it as a relaxing 15-minute break, don’t resent the time spent stretching

By Poppy Campbell BSc (Hons) MCSP HCPC Chartered Physiotherapist

References:

ACSM guidelines: www.ACSM.org

Armiger, P, and Martyn, MA. Stretching for Functional Flexibility. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
Williams & Wilkins; (2010)
Harvey, L., Herbert, R. and Crosbie, J. (2002), Does stretching induce lasting increases in joint ROM?
A systematic review. Physiothery.

Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after
exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011
Weerapong, P., Hume, P. A., & Kolt, G. S. (2004). Stretching: Mechanisms and benefits for sport
performance and injury prevention. Physical Therapy Reviews, 9(4),
Witvrouw E 1 , Mahieu N, Danneels L, McNair P. Stretching and injury prevention: an obscure
relationship. (2004)

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