Stretching – the what and why

Jun 10, 2020

Stretching for runners | Run Life

Stretching is often an overlooked and underrated part of exercise despite the huge benefits that come with it. Most of us rush through this quickly just to acknowledge that it was done but sadly it is often not done correctly and the benefits therefore get lost.

While many people may find stretching to be boring, there are ways to try incorporate it into a more meaningful way doesn’t feel like a chore. You can even try and incorporate it into your daily activities. Remember that you don’t have to do all the stretches at once, unless you are doing them as part of a cool down after an exercise routine to help with lactic acid build up and to prevent DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).

The benefits of stretching include the following:

  • Increased range of motion and flexibility
  • Increases recovery
  • Decreases post exercise aches and pains as well as DOMS
  • Improves physical performance
  • Promotes circulation
  • Decreases risk of injury
  • Stress management
  • Improves posture
  • Prepares the body for movement and activity

There are a variety of techniques that come into play when we discuss stretching in general and each technique has its place, depending on what your end goals are. Therefore it is important to first ask yourself what you wish to achieve with your stretch so you can identify what approach would be best. A few techniques are described below to help guide you with your selection:

Static stretch

This is the most common form of stretching that most of us are familiar with. It involves taking a joint to the end of its range of motion, where discomfort (not pain) can be felt in the muscles. It is usually held for 10 – 45 seconds, however the research does show that holding a stretch for around 30 seconds or longer is more beneficial for achieving results.

Dynamic stretch

This is a stretch that involves movement. The full range of movement of a joint is performed repeatedly in a controlled manner (the movement can also mimic the movement pattern of a specific activity in a sport). This is used to warm up the muscles around that joint in order to prepare it for the movement or sport that is about to be started.

Active assisted stretch

This stretch takes a muscle to the end of its range and then uses an additional force (not too large) to exert additional pressure. This aims to gain additional range of movement relative to what the muscle was able to achieve before. This is a common technique used post injury or surgery but should be done with caution as further injury can occur if the force exerted is too great for the muscle to tolerate.

Passive stretch

This is a form of static stretching where the body often uses gravity to relax into a stretch at the end of range of the muscle.

PNF stretch

PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Fascilitation. This technique relies on a person’s reflexes to produce a deeper stretch than what the other techniques can achieve. It is a technique that physiotherapists commonly use for soft tissue injuries, as well as post-surgery rehabilitation. Caution should be taken with this to ensure it is used at the correct time of rehab, with the correct intensity to prevent further injury. There are 2 types of PNF that are used, namely Contract-Relax and Contract-Relax-Antagonist-Contract. Each form is selected by the therapist depending on the merit of a patient’s presentation.

Now that we have covered some key principles of stretching, there are a few principles that are important to consider, regardless of what technique you decide to employ:

  • Always warm up first. Never go into a stretch aggressively without increasing blood flow to the area first.
  • Never force a stretch.
  • Don’t over do it. The frequency of your stretches affects its load and this should not go beyond what the benefit would be as intense stretching will also require the muscles to recover from the new range and load it was exposed to.
  • Don’t bounce it. Control of a stretch is important to achieve your desired results, especially if your muscle is tight.
  • Stretch both sides. There is no benefit in having one flexible side while the other remains stiff. Balance and symmetry is important to prevent injury.
  • Avoid stretching muscle strains, joint sprains and fractured areas.

Chantal Pretto

Chantal Pretto from Pretto Physiotherapy specialises in sports and orthopaedics. They take a complete biomechanical approach to identify the underlying causes of the problem, rather than just treating the symptoms. They specialise in working with runners, as well as other sportspeople. Read more here.

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