If and When to Stretch? The Dilemma Continues

– Derek M. Hansen – November 28, 2009 –

Almost every time I open the most recent issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, I will find at least a handful of articles on creatine supplementation, vibration training or stretching and warm-up. In this article, I will focus my attention on the whole issue of pre-event stretching and running performance. Stretching, like aspirin, vitamin C and moderate alcohol consumption, seems to make the jump between healthy solution and evil snake oil every other research study. So what are we to believe?

Traditionally, stretching has played a significant role in the warm-up process for athletes of all types. Common images that we have seen are the track athlete stretching on the hurdle, gymnasts being aggressively stretched by their overzealous coaches, and martial artists doing all sorts of preparatory stretches as part of their warm-up. If you weren’t stretching, you weren’t doing a complete warm-up. Stretching for the average group of athletes also tends to be a social time where individuals catch up on gossip, recent escapades and ambitious plans for the weekend. For others, it can be a meditative, reflective process. Needless to say, it is an integral part of the overall preparation for training and competition.

More recently, stretching has been identified as an activity that could adversely impact your performance, particularly for speed and power activities. Studies have suggested that pre-event static stretching reduces a muscle’s ability to rapidly exert force. From these studies, the message that is being sent to the general public is that pre-exercise static stretching is bad and may even contribute to injuries during exercise and competition.

The key common-sense issue (yes – here I go talking about common sense again) is a contextual one and relates to not simply the use of stretching, but more the timing and implementation of static stretching in the warm-up process. Is static stretching good or is it bad? Falling back on my most common response to exercise related questions… “it depends.” Given my inability to answer a question with a direct response, the following points may help to clear things up:

Static stretching in itself does not comprise a warm-up. Static stretching, however, can be used to support a good warm-up for training or competition. Any athlete or coach with any common sense knows that a good warm-up involves movement and rehearsal. Movement gradually progresses from general to specific and less intense to more intense over a specified period of time. In most cases, 45 to 90 minutes may be required to physically and mentally prepare an athlete for an explosive performance in either training or competition. In speed and power activities, a warm-up is used to increase blood flow, potentiate muscles and rehearse technique. In longer endurance events, a warm-up opens up circulatory passageways and optimizes the heart for efficient use of the aerobic energy system. Static stretching can be performed in the earlier parts of the warm-up to loosen up tight areas, particularly where overuse issues can arise. It should be used strategically in modest amounts comprising a small proportion of overall warm-up time.

Static stretching should rarely be used, if ever, immediately prior to high intensity performances. The word ‘immediately’ should be interpreted as within minutes of the performance. One recent study I reviewed had some subjects performing tests three minutes after static stretching, with others performing tests six minutes following stating stretching. Obviously force production was impaired within such a short window of time. The six-minute group had less impairment than the three-minute group, providing a demonstration of the ability of the body to shed the negative effects of static stretching over time.

Static stretching can still be used as part of an effective warm-up routine if it is applied at the right time and in appropriate amounts. As mentioned earlier, if static stretching is required it can be used near the beginning of the preparatory process. Stretching can be considered a way to check on the status of key muscle groups. Muscle tone is technically considered to be a muscle’s resistance to stretch. It has also been defined as the amount of contraction in a resting muscle. The process of stretching (best classified as a process, not an activity) should be designed to identify tight areas, such as overly high muscle tone (hypertonic muscle), that may restrict movement in your training session. Stretching is an “awareness-building” process that will help you direct your warm-up appropriately, using a combination of static stretching, dynamic stretching and movement. The term “search and destroy” could loosely apply, but the process of stretching should be considered a subtle one.

Progressively higher intensity activities following static stretching will help to offset the negative impacts of stretching and prepare you for your training session or competition. If the initial stages of the warm-up include general movement patterns and lower intensity activities (i.e. jogging), the latter portion of the warm-up will include more specific activities of a higher intensity. The majority of studies reporting that static stretching negatively impacted force production did not follow what I would consider a “good” warm-up protocol. Warm-up sessions that do not include some form of light stretching in the early stages to appropriately gauge muscle readiness and suppleness may run into trouble during the latter stages. In fact, a stretching session for some individuals may determine that they are too loose with muscle tone that is too low. In this case, the objective of the warm-up should be to activate the neuromuscular system in a manner that provides active or explosive musculo-tendon responses. These days people like to use the term “potentiation”, but I would say that any activation protocols are part of the comprehensive warm-up process. Call me old fashioned.

As with all other training elements and tools, the context in which they are applied is of utmost importance. Rarely, if ever, are individual training elements applied in isolation. Running sessions must be integrated and ordered appropriately with warm-up routines, strength training, recovery and regeneration techniques, as well as nutritional strategies. Stretching, including static, dynamic and ballistic techniques, can all be a part of an effective warm-up routine. However, as with a recipe for an elaborate culinary creation, the ordering and amounts of ingredients introduced must follow a specific, optimized schedule in order for the final product to be a success.

If and when static stretching is used for either warm-up or recovery purposes, it must be applied deliberately and carefully. Stretching muscle and tendon haphazardly will only lead to micro-trauma and, ultimately, greater tightness and discomfort in the long run. Stretching should be first and foremost an exploratory process to evaluate the status of skeletal muscle. Once an athlete, coach and/or therapist determines the status of muscle, different methods of stretching can be used to either elevate muscle tone (i.e. PNF stretching) or reduce muscle tone (i.e. light static stretching). One of the best books on stretching I have ever read is a book by the late John Jerome titled “Staying Supple: The Bountiful Pleasures of Stretching.” It is a book about the process and experience of stretching, detailing the impact on muscle tissue and functional anatomy. While other books provide lists of stretches, Jerome’s book increases our awareness of the purpose and sensation of stretching.

As with all areas of training and conditioning, rarely do black and white scenarios exist (i.e. stretching is evil). The world continues to be gray. As coaches and athletes, we must persist in our efforts to develop flexible guidelines that apply to a plethora of situations and give us the best chance for success.