In the sports and fitness world, the argument of “to stretch or not to stretch” is nearly as controversial as the age-old debate of “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In fact, I once listened to a professor tell a story about being at an exercise science conference and witnessing an argument about stretching that became so heated that the two scientists nearly ended up in a fistfight.
Clearly, stretching is a very serious topic.
And although almost everyone–athletes and non-athletes alike–knows there is an association between stretching and exercise, it seems no one quite understands why, when, or how to do it…or even if stretching needs to be done at all. And it’s no wonder we are all so confused; it seems every time you turn around, science is giving you different advice on the positives or negatives of stretching.
Yet without fail, I often see new runners show up for the start of a training run and instinctively reach down, grab their ankle, and pull their foot behind them into a quad stretch. But why? Let’s check out the common beliefs behind why we think we should stretch and whether science currently backs up our instincts.
Will I run better and prevent injuries if I stretch? No. It turns out your high school sports coach was wrong in instructing you to hold that quadriceps stretch before going for a warm-up lap. In fact, it turns out that stretching before exercise can actually weaken your muscles and decrease athletic performance.
A better suggestion is to warm up before exercise with an activity that slowly raises your body temperature while mimicking the movements of your sport. In the case of running, a warm up should consist of walking, running strides, or dynamic movements such as butt kicks, skipping, or high knees that will help ease your body into your workout and prevent injuries.
Will stretching help you avoid post-exercise soreness? I remember being told by coaches and gym teachers alike that we must stretch after exercise in order to prevent muscle soreness. But does it work? According to a number of research studies…no. This research shows that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.
But what about flexibility? Great question! It appears that yes, stretching can increase flexibility for short durations. But once the stretching stops, flexibility returns to pre-stretch levels. In other words, according to studies, stretching only makes you more flexible while you are stretching, with no long-term effects.
Now, if you are anything like me, your thoughts are, “but what about yoga students and ballerinas and gymnasts? They stretch a lot and are incredibly flexible! Anyone can see that regular stretching in these sports can, in fact, make you more flexible.” But scientists have had a hard time proving this is actually the case. They have been able to prove, however, that frequent stretching can make you tolerate a stretch better, therefore making it appear that you are more flexible.
So this leaves us with the question: To stretch, or not to stretch? For now, the consensus seems to be: Do what makes you feel good. Science is still on the fence about whether there are long-term benefits or negative side effects to regular or even acute stretching. If you find that a good stretching session leaves you feeling refreshed after a workout, then go for it. If you absolutely can’t stand taking the time to stretch after a run and don’t seem to suffer any ill effects from not stretching, then that’s okay too.
Bottom line: Listen to your body. As with many situations, everyone’s body reacts differently, and stretching is no exception.