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Expert Perspectives

To Stretch, Or Not To Stretch?

By Dr. Andrew Miners, Medcan Clinical and Product Director of Sports Medicine, Therapy, Rehabilitation and Fitness

Stretching has its controversies. The research shows that certain kinds can increase flexibility and reduce injury.

As a chiropractor, I see many clients who try to alleviate an ache or pain by stretching. And I get asked questions all the time about whether it’s appropriate to stretch before playing a sport, going for a run or hitting the tennis court. The truth is, the scientific research that exists around stretching can be confusing to laypeople. Different forms of stretching exist, and some forms work in certain circumstances and not others. To distil sometimes contradictory science into clear guidance, I sought the help of my friend and colleague, Dr. Greg Lehman, a chiropractor and physiotherapist who teaches other clinicians about pain and biomechanics. The following guidance is synthesized from our conversation.

What is stretching?

Several types exist. Dynamic stretching involves the fluid movement of joints or limbs without holding any specific position over time. This type can help increase your range of motion and warm up your muscles before a sport or physical activity. Dynamic stretches often mimic the movements conducted in the activity you’re about to do. For example, dynamic stretching before a round of golf would involve performing easy repetitions of a club swing.

Static stretching, also known as passive stretching, involves placing the body and joints in positions that you hold in place, ideally for less than a minute. Think of the standard toe touch, or the quad stretch. “If you want to increase mobility, you have to have some component of stretching,” says Dr. Lehman.

Why is stretching good for me?

We tend to get less flexible and less mobile as we age. When we stretch on a regular basis, we can combat the age-related decline in flexibility, and promote the retention of our muscle’s full range of motion. In addition, research has shown that stretching may reduce muscle stiffness. Surprisingly, the main way that stretching can improve our range of motion is through the nervous system. When you perform a stretch frequently over time, your body can sense the strain you put on your muscle and calibrate the resistance the muscle needs to provide in response. Over time, the nervous system learns the movement can be done safely and enables the same movement to happen more easily and more deeply, in the future.

Originally, Dr. Lehman was interested in spine biomechanics and pain science. He wasn’t sure of the benefits of stretching. But when he read the totality of the research, he realized he had to back down on his strong opinions. “There’s a lesson to be learned,” he says. Now, Dr. Lehman credits his stretching regimen with his success at gymnastics, an activity he picked up in his mid-40s. “I have more flexibility now than I did when I was 17. If your goal is to get more mobility, I would definitely add some passive stretching.” Ideally, Dr. Lehman suggests performing static stretches four to five days a week.

Can stretching help prevent injury?

If you are already injured, it’s important not to stretch in order to prevent further injury. When preparing for a sprint, or another ballistic activity like cycling, basketball or baseball, static stretching has been shown to help lower your risk of muscle injury. The research suggests that holding your stretches for 15 to 30 seconds is the most effective in preventing injury, and to maximize your benefit, your stretching regimen should be performed under the guidance of a trainer or physical therapist.

Should I stretch before athletic activity?

Some research suggests that stretching before an athletic activity could cause temporary loss of power or strength. “Yes—if you hold a stretch for longer than 60 seconds, there’s a tiny decrease in power and strength,” says Dr. Lehman. However there’s a way to counteract that loss: “if you just do a warm up, like some dynamic movement after static stretching, that loss is washed out. You don’t really have those decreases in force,” he explains.

To maximize your range of motion and simultaneously avoid a potential loss of strength, hold your static stretches for 15 to 30 seconds, and follow up your static routine with some dynamic stretching that mirrors the movements of the activity you’re about to perform.

Don’t have the time for both static and dynamic stretching? If forced to choose, I would recommend starting with dynamic stretches to warm up your muscles and get them used to the movements of the sport or activity you plan on doing.

OK, I’m convinced it’s a good idea to start stretching. Now where should I start?

If you want to start a stretching routine, it’s best to start slow and build gradually. “When it comes to stretching, people think it should hurt,” says Dr. Lehman. “It doesn’t have to. Stretch until you feel a pull in your muscles—that’s enough.” Genetics play a big role in flexibility. Some people are naturally very flexible while others have a much more limited range of motion. It’s important to know your body’s limits and set achievable goals. You may never be able to do the splits, for example.

Stretch often, but don’t go past your tolerance. The more you work a stretching routine into your day-to-day life, the higher your tolerance will become. And the gains happen regardless of your age. For example, one study found that “longer hold times during stretching of the hamstring muscles resulted in a greater rate of gains in ” in elderly participants. And on days when you aren’t competing in a race or sport—and you’re not concerned about a slight short-term loss of power or strength—feel free to hold your stretches for up to 60 seconds.

Finally, think about the movements and motions that you do most in your daily life. Which muscles are you using the most? Where would you benefit from a wider range of motion? Use these questions to help guide you in creating your very own stretching routine.

Do you have pain or discomfort that could be alleviated by stretching? Request an appointment with Medcan’s Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation program.

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