The other day, someone asked me about stretching. Should I stretch at the end of the session? How long should I stretch for? In fact, why do we stretch?
So to get to an answer, let’s track back to: what is the point of stretching? Trainers have lots of different views on this. The science isn’t particularly conclusive either way. So here’s my view.
Stretching is important before a session to ensure that we take each joint and muscle group to its full range of motion before attempting to load it with weights or impact. This type of dynamic stretching really important in preventing injury. It’s part of the warm up that we do every session. It’s even more important as we age and muscle fibres lose some elasticity. And joints lose some lubrication.
Stretching a muscle is also really important when there is restriction or an imbalance. So if you’ve got tight hamstrings or hip flexors for example, you should stretch these muscle groups systematically and regularly. This kind of stretching involves holding each position for 30 seconds or more. It might involve tools like bands, balls or rollers. And to see an improvement you should really work a muscle group (in different poses) for, say, about 5 minutes. You probably want to do this before or during a session.
So what about the stretching we normally do at the end of the session. This stretch typically lasts maybe 2-4 minutes and covers the whole body. So why do we do it?
Well, in my view it serves 2 functions:
- It slows you down! Often, we’re in a hurry to grab our keys and set off onto our next thing, without giving our body the chance to get back to normal. Slowing down for a few minutes allows your heart rate to drop to normal levels, it helps adrenaline fall to normal levels and generally helps you unwind.
- It helps you recover faster. When you stretch, blood floods the muscles which helps to clear out the waste products of exercise, lactic acid. In other words, it helps clear jelly legs.
And that’s kindof it! Post-exercise stretching doesn’t really help DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Because DOMS is caused by micro tears in the muscle, which have already occurred at this point. Gentle stretching may help by flooding the muscle with nutrient-carrying blood. So that the repairs can start to happen. But it doesn’t really help fix DOMs. In fact, it might make it worse: if you’ve already got lots of micro-tears by stretching you might actually cause more tears.
My routine: once I’ve finished on the track I’ll stretch my hamstring and quads. For the sake of clearing the waste products as mention. Then I’ll walk / jog a lap of the track. And that’s it.
My flexibility work happens twice, a week in front of the telly. And I’ll work all my restrictions and imbalances before and during a session. My favs are thoracic openers, hip mobility, adductor stretches and of course the dodegy ol’ hamstring!