by Earl W. Fee © 2004
Earl W. Fee is the author of How to be a Champion from 9 to 90.
The book is about Body,Mind & Spirit Training.
The latest thinking on stretching is that it should not be done (or at least minimized) before a strenuous workout or a race. Many recent studies recommend a dynamic warmup instead of static stretching as part of the warmup. However static stretching is recommended shortly after the workout or competition, when muscles are warm. This provides maximum flexibility, improves recovery and reduces lactate and soreness in muscles thus helping prevent injury. But for the majority of athletes tradition and old habits is hard to break partly because the majority are not aware of the new facts. The rational for this switch to little or no stretching before a workout is explained below. I have kept injury free for the past year by following the above in addition to Pilates in the mornings and cross training in between running days.
Static stretching is still very beneficial and needs to be done daily, but at the right time, and always after warming the muscles. Sprinters need less flexibility than distance runners as some stiffness is required for maximal force.
Purpose of the Warmup
The main purpose of a warmup before training or competition is to increase muscle and joint temperature by one or two degrees. Proper warmup reduces injury and significantly improves mechanical efficiency and hence performance. Stretching cold muscles is not beneficial. To warm up the muscles jog for at least five minutes (or longer on a cold day) at a heart rate above 100 beats per minute, or break into a mild sweat. This is difficult for me as I hardly ever sweat. The Russians sometimes would do squats to raise leg temperature in legs during warmup.
In addition, ideally the warm up should simulate the actual movements in the training session which will turn on and increase neural firing rates. A dynamic warmup satisfies these requirements but static stretching does not.
Static stretching even though mild leads to some microtrauma of muscle cells and stretching masks pain. Therefore static stretching immediately prior to training particularly if intense and prolonged could lead to injury if followed by intense or prolonged exercise. Similarly, it is not wise to workout with sore muscles (due to extreme microtears) as it often leads to injury.
Disadvantages of Static Stretching Before Training or Race
Recent research trials and literature surveys indicates the following disadvantages:
Static stretching does not warm up muscles sufficiently. The warming up during jogging is often lost during the long static stretching session, usually 10 to 15 minutes, or more including talking.
There is little similarity or specificity between static stretching and the rapid lengthening (eccentric contraction) and shortening (concentric contraction) of muscles under load while running when injuries occur.
Possible decreased performance. Stretching within 60 minutes before the start of competition or training leads to microtears in muscles and decreased force output. Peak force and rate of force may be reduced by a few percent. Strength decreases slightly up to an hour after long static stretching. Hence performance is decreased in endurance and speed /explosive events.
Many recent trials and literature surveys indicate static stretching before exercise is not beneficial to prevent injuries. For example, notably an Australian study of 1538 army recruits doing intense exercise (Pope et al, 2000) and a review of 138 sport science articles (Shrier, 1999). However it is impossible to be conclusive on this point since there are many variables to consider: e.g., elite vs recreational athlete, young vs old athlete, flexible vs inflexible athlete, intense exercise vs non intense, and type of sport. In fact the risk of injury appears about even in favour of static stretch, or not at all before a workout; this would be a fairer statement.
This is not a central nervous system activity unlike running or a dynamic warmup.
There is no similarity to actual running since most of the stretching is done while stationary while sitting or lying down.
Static flexibility deals with structure and maximum range whereas dynamic flexibility as in running deals with the central nervous system and easy range of motion (McHugh, 1977). Big differences.
Decreased blood flow compared with dynamic warmup.
Advantage of Stretching After Training or Race
Studies have shown runners have lower rate of injury by static stretching after training sessions compared to runners who stretched before training sessions. (Ballistic stretching which involves quick/ bouncing movements is not recommended as it could lead to injury.)
Therefore, static stretching is normally recommended after the workout or competition when muscles are warm. This provides greater flexibility, reduces lactate, prevents fibres healing in a shortened position, and speeds muscle cell repair. Stretching also increases the passage of amino acids, particularly the main one glutamine, into the muscle cells. Thus recovery is greatly improved by helping prevent soreness and injury, and assisting refilling the muscles with glucose. However, if the training has been particularly intense, after a heavy weight training session, or after an intense advanced plyometrics session it is recommended to stretch after two hours. Why? Microtears in the muscles after recent intense training need to subside otherwise they will be further aggravated if stretched immediately after. But if stretching two hours later it is recommended to warm up the muscles first with a hot shower, or fast walking, or a few minutes of cycling,
A dynamic warmup for runners consists of exercises such as: walking, jogging slowly, sprint ABC drills (e.g., running strides, high knee running, butt kicks), fast arms, quick feet, lunges, squats, bicycle leg motions, etc. A dynamic warmup can also include plyometrics (skipping, hopping , bounding and jumping). Dynamic movements are moving stretching exercises specific to running which involve the central nervous system (neurological) as well as cardiovascular and physiological system. Dynamic movements are slow and controlled and at low intensity (apart from the plyometrics). Similarly a dynamic warmup for athletes doing weight training would consist of light weights (E.g., squats and/or bench pressing) after some jogging.
Advantages of Dynamic Warmup
A dynamic warmup activates the neural pathways of the nervous system in movements mimicking running movements. Hence running form/technique can be worked on and improved during the warmup.
Joint mobility is improved to a greater extent compared to static stretching.
The cardiovascular system is worked on at the same time as the muscles and joints.
Speed/power and strength is improved particularly if plyometrics is included.
By simulating actual running movements the athlete is better prepared physiologically and psychologically for training or competition compared to static stretching.
By substituting dynamic movements for static stretching the muscle microtears can be avoided.
The activities normally include fast movement plyometrics which will improve reaction time, strength, and help to retain or increase fast muscle fibres and associated neural pathways. The latter is important to older athletes who tend to lose fast twitch fibres due to lack of fast resistive movements in training.