Sunday, August 31, 2014

Stretching: The Truth

I’ve always been a stretcher.

Although the tail is new.

But I’ve never liked it.  I think it’s boring, and it makes antsy.  So sometimes I skip stretching and head straight into my run (a run being my workout of choice), but I do it feeling guilty.  I worry that my haste is going to cost me a pulled muscle.

My stretching habit dates way back, all the way to the extended public humiliation that was middle school gym class.  Every class I’d join the gaggle of gangly 12-year-olds doing lunges and toe touches under the watchful eye of Mr. H., my gym teacher and the meanest old man alive.  He barked that stretching was necessary to a healthy physical education, and we believed him.

Later, in high school, I joined the field hockey team, and my stretching became more rigorous and nuanced.  Varsity players lead the warmups.  They were girls of 17 or 18 who seemed sophisticated and worldly to a freshman like me, and I desperately wanted to be like them.  As we stretched, they would call out the names of each muscle group we were working.  “Quad stretch!  Hamstring stretch!” they’d yell, and we’d shift as a unit in the wet autumn grass.  It was important to stretch your quads and your hamstrings and all the rest of it, this much we knew.  If you didn’t stretch, you risked injury, and an injury would send you to the bench.  Then you would never make the varsity team.

Pic of me playing field hockey.

So, stretching is how I was raised.  It’s as ingrained to me as Look both ways before you cross or Never talk to strangers or Don’t pick your nose.  Which is why I was shocked to find out about the controversy.

What controversy?

The thing is that stretching as I know it is a bit of a racket.  Common sense dictates that we stretch to prevent injury and soreness, but actually there is no scientific evidence that it protects against either one.  In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that stretching before running can have detrimental effects—at least when it’s done the way I remember on the field hockey field.

The type of stretching I grew up doing is known as static stretching, which is the process of elongating a muscle and holding it in place.  This type of stretching is intended to increase the muscle’s range of motion, but for an activity like running, a wide range of motion is not actually necessary.  In fact, static stretching can be dangerous if it’s taken too far.  Stretching tears muscle tissue at a microscopic level, and when the muscle heals it becomes a tiny bit longer and more pliant.  A muscle’s natural resistance helps it protect itself, and when that resistance is compromised, it may be slower to stabilize after an unexpected movement, such as tripping over a rock.  This delay can lead to injury.

Studies suggest that static stretching before running can impede progress in other ways as well. This New York Times blog cites an analysis of over 100 experiments assessing static stretching’s effectiveness as a warmup.  The findings would baffle my old gym teacher, Mr. H.  Static stretching actually reduces muscle strength by over 5%, and the longer you hold a stretch, the weaker the muscle becomes.  In short, static stretching before exercise is not a good idea.

Who wants to tell her?

There is another type of stretch that experts recommend for warming up, and its called dynamic stretching.  Dynamic stretching is the act of putting a muscle through a repeated, controlled motion, moving it a bit further with every repetition.  This type of stretching gets your heart rate up and your blood rate flowing in preparation for a workout.  It also improves your muscles range of motion without straining them the way static stretches do.  Additionally, endless pre-workout stretching sessions are out like your dads old leisure suit.  Ten to 15 minutes is enough time to get dynamically warmed up before a run.  You can find a great list of pre-run dynamic stretches here.

If you need a wider range of motion than this, you are maybe not doing "running" the right way. (Photo: (c) Ro.)

You don’t have to disregard static stretching altogether.  Many experts recommend bringing it back at the end of a workout, doing toe touches and knee bends like youre 12 years old in a mid-nineties gym class. But thats actually a point of contention, and it assumes that you didnt just kill it so hard on the elliptical that youre ready to collapse.  If youre the type of person who hates to stretch after a good run or a solid workout (is there any other type of person?), you can certainly find plenty of information back up your decision.  But a lot of people do like to end with static stretches, because it feels good to do them.  

And feeling good is really the whole point.

A smile is a stretch of its own.

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