It’s inevitable – go to any starting line, fitness class or gym and you’ll find people in various stages of stretching. Almost always, people are stretching before their exercise. It’s what we were all taught by our elementary P.E. teachers, right? You gotta warm up those muscles so you don’t pull something!
While my elementary school teachers taught me many important and useful things (one particular lesson that has stood the test of time in my memory was Mr. B telling us 5th graders to always run the water in the sink for a good 10 seconds after running the garbage disposal. “Save you a ton on plumbing costs!” he promised. I don’t know if he’s right – any plumbers out there? – but to this day I still do it!) it turns out they were wrong about stretching.
My first real experience with stretching beyond the rudimentary toe touches and arm swings we did before standing in line to bat once in an hour was in gymnastics. Stretching, in that sport, is more of a commandment than a suggestion. The first thing our coaches would tell us when we popped out on the floor was, “Go stretch out.” In fact, we were encouraged to get to the gym early so we could devote more time to holding our various splits and backbends before joining in the coach-led stretch outs that often involved – no joke – them standing on our backs or pushing us to deepen the stretch. Even if you were injured or sick, you stretched. I became so indoctrinated in the art stretching out that I’d sit in the middle splits while doing homework or balance a leg on a stair to hyperextend a split while talking on the phone to my friends (which I did for approximately 28 hours a day).
I was reminded of this when Reader Janet e-mailed me:
“I had a question I wanted to throw at you.. I started running about a month ago with the Couch to 5k program. I joined a community forum with others involved in the program. Recently there has been a lot of back and forth about the merits of stretching before running and there is a clear divide on opinion. Yesterday someone even provided research on why it’s bad. Although this goes against everything I was taught in school about working out. I thought you should always stretch. What’s your thought?”
Take a gander at any running board and you’ll see Janet’s not the only one who is confused. We were all taught growing up to stretch first, then workout. Even today all of my fitness classes start out with some basic stretches. Research has proven that this is not only unnecessary but actually harmful.
The NY Times ran an article in 2008 that summarizes the latest research about stretching. If you want the short version: Don’t do it or you’ll diiiiieeeee! I exaggerate. But really, they don’t want you do it. Stretching after your workout? Knock yourself out. Before? Don’t.
The first problem with stretching before your workout is that it decreases muscle strength. A study out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas says, “athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all.” About 30% less, apparently. And the effect lasts: “The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.” In addition, stretching pre-sweat can lead to a great incidence of injury.
The confusion seems to come from the need to warm up. Our bodies do do better if you warm up your muscles – defined as working out at about 40% of your max heart rate for 5 to 10 minutes. A good warm up can help you lift heavier, increase endurance and run faster. It also reduces your risk of injury.
A good warm-up is anything that slowly elevates your heart rate. The number one mistake people make, according to researchers, is warming up too intensely or too quickly. It doesn’t work to shock your body by running at just under pace for 1 minute before hitting your workout. I have no research to back this up but I have noticed for myself that when I warm up too quickly or skip it I get side stitches. So jog – slowly! – a few laps, jump on the elliptical for 10 minutes or take a leisurely bike ride before plunging into your planned sweat fest.
And whatever you do, don’t stretch! Save your stretching for after your workout, preferably immediately after while your muscles are still limber. There are lots of benefits to stretching out. Not only does it increase your range of motion and loosen up tight muscles (although, sadly, research says it does not help prevent soreness) but it just feels good! Nothing like a good Up Dog after doing ab work!
So now that you know when to stretch, what’s the best way to stretch? As far as positions, I think you should just do a range of stretches that hit most of your major muscle groups (i.e. legs, arms, back, core). It’s more important how you stretch than which exact stretches you use. While there are as many methods of stretching as there are athletes (and scientists), here a few points to keep in mind:
– Don’t use stretching aids (even other people). I don’t use any aids except my own body weight to facilitate the stretch. The days of having someone stand on my back were over once I realized that being able to pop my right hip in and out of joint at will is actually not a skill but a problem. You are the only person who knows when a stretch goes from feeling good to tearing pain so it doesn’t make sense to have someone else pull or push you. There are a lot of people who will disagree with me on this point – there is a whole type of exercise called “resisted stretching” that is based on the principle of having someone else stretch you while you push back – and I’d be totally willing to try it with a trained professional. This is not one of those things I think the Gym Buddies and I should Experiment with on each other, as amusing as it would undoubtedly be to the other gym patrons.
– Go slowly. Especially right after an intense workout, you’ll feel very loose and limber but be careful before dropping down into those splits. It’ll feel good… until you can’t get back up and then you’ll be paying for it for days later. And not just with your pride. You may think you only use your groin for one purpose but you’ll soon find out how wrong you are!
– Hold the stretch. Don’t bounce – your ligaments are not rubberbands. The longer you can hold the stretch (I aim for at least 3-5 slow breaths in each position) the more effective it will be. Don’t hold it at the point of pain though, just hold it deep enough to get a good stretch.
What did I miss? What’s your favorite stretching exercise? What’s your stretching philosophy?