The Stretching Debate

For years practitioners, personal trainers, and everyone in between has preached stretching. I remember having 15-20 minute stretching sessions prior to our baseball practices and off-season training sessions in college. However, several recent studies have concluded that stretching does not prevent injury and may actually be detrimental to performance. These studies have drawn attention from prominent endurance sports magazines. The result has been a debate on whether stretching is good for endurance athletes or not. So, I scoured through research in hopes of finding the truth.

Here is as close to the truth as I could get…

Imagine if a hockey goalie never stretched? The first pass across the crease would lead to a torn groin. So, obviously stretching is good right?

There are a fair amount of studies available on stretching. One shortfall of some of them is that they make a broad conclusion based on a study using a specific activity. For example, in the conclusion of a study performed on sprinters, the authors worded it in a way that leads you to believe that stretching does not reduce the risk of injury in any sport that involves sprinting. The reality is that there is so much more than sprinting in many sports. Basketball involves jumping, football involves explosive movements against resistance, and hockey involves twisting while shooting.

The general answer to whether or not stretching is good is YES. However, for endurance athletes the timing of stretching makes a difference. When you pick apart the studies, what you find is that for endurance activities such as jogging, swimming, and biking, stretching just prior to the workout or event actually inhibits performance and endurance. This even holds true in sprinters. However, stretching after a workout remains to have favorable benefits in studies.

The ideal warm-up for swimming, biking, and running alike does not involve sitting on the ground stretching. Static stretching (holding a particular stretch) actually inhibits muscle firing and is shown to decrease muscle endurance and power. Therefore, this shouldn’t be done prior to your workout or competition (YAY, no more 10 minute boring stretching sessions).

However, a particular type of warm-up is shown to stretch muscle “just enough” and ready muscles for the upcoming activity. This involves dynamic warm-up drills, such as form running (high knees, striders, shuffle, etc).

What About Our Beloved Foam Rollers?

The foam roller can be a very beneficial tool, however it should be used in moderation. The primary theory behind it is that it affects the golgi tendon organ (GTO). Whether it is the stimulus to the GTO that makes foam rolling beneficial or not is a debated topic. What matters most is that people do well using foam rollers.

For endurance athletes, I do not recommend using the foam roller prior to a workout. It also should not be excruciatingly painful. It should be no more painful than a mildly firm massage. Following a workout, I recommend using the foam roller very lightly for no more than one minute per region (example: quads). The rolling should be slow, and again…light! Later that evening, such as before bed, you can use the roller a little more aggressively, but again, no more painful than a mildly firm massage.

Summary and Solutions

In the end, stretching is a good thing for endurance athletes, just not before a workout or competition. Instead, endurance athletes should perform “dynamic movements” to achieve the proper stretch. By easing into your workout over 5-10 minutes, your muscles will have time to adapt and be ready for the heavy workload.

Following your workouts, spend 5 minutes stretching. It is not necessary to hold an intense stretch for a minute, rather hold for 8-10 seconds and move on to the next body part. If you wish to use a foam roller, do so lightly following your workout (not before!).

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