Is Stretching Helping my Recovery?
by Mitch Davis
Great question. Like always, instead of a short, simple answer, I will ramble. It is what I do best. First, we must define stretching. There are many types of stretching. We can define stretching as the application of force to musculotendinous structures in order to achieve a change in their length, usually for the purposes of improving joint range of motion, reducing stiffness, or soreness, or preparing for physical activity. Flexibility, on the other hand, can be defined as the ROM of a joint or a related series of joints such as the spine. It is important that we do not get these two definitions confused. Stretching, for the most part, is used in hopes of increasing flexibility. The downfall to this is that, in order to achieve this increased flexibility through stretching, it produces uncomfortable or even painful byproducts.
Just by looking at the above sentence, we might start to wonder if stretching really is aiding in recovery. Now, for those of you who know me, you know the answer I would give is a resounding no. It absolutely does not aid in recovery. However, I will be nice and give a solution that might at least meet some of you, half way. In terms of recovery, stretching seeks to achieve motion that is pain free. If we took this approach, we could say that in fact, stretching might help aid in recovery. However, there are other ways in which we can produce the same results: heat, cold, vibration, massage, hydrotherapy, anesthetics, and other modalities. In fact, these modalities have also been shown to reduce pain and enhance ROM.
So, is it the stretching that is helping with recovery? First, we need to ask ourselves why we are stretching. If it is for recovery, this section is not for you. If it is to increase one’s range of motion, we should understand how stretching produces said results. Stretching to develop ROM improvements relies largely on the achievement of the “stretch tolerance”, which requires focused practice in extreme and uncomfortable ROM positions.
Now let us return to recovery. The presence of discomfort or pain in an effort to achieve recovery appears contradictory to the concept of recovery, does it not? So, for those of you who do enjoy static stretching, an important distinction here is that you are only working within your range of motion that is tolerable and allows you to relax. To me, this seems counterintuitive. If I want to increase my range of motion in a given limb or body part, I would need to stretch that limb to a point of some discomfort. That is, just past its current ROM and developing newly acquired ROM. If I am doing this post-exercise, I am not returning to a relaxed state, but instead, continuing my state of over-excitability, thus pushing off, or delaying recovery.
I’ll defend stretching yet again. If you want to increase your flexibility, by all means do so. However, in terms of performance, you are gaining no added benefit, prior to, or following exercise. Another issue we find is that stretching takes a massive amount of time to experience any type of increased ROM. According to Wolff’s Law, semipermanent changes in ROM require focused training for days, if not months. Read that again, semipermanent. The effects of stretching are extremely short lived, from seconds to minutes. We cannot have it all. To increase my flexibility would mean more dedicated, focused time spent on static stretching, where the results are semipermanent, and the work that needs to be done can take days, if not months.
So, how can we incorporate stretching into our recovery plan, post exercise? Verkhoshansky and Siff have attributed increased recovery [reduction in Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), increased performance in subsequent sessions, feeling less stiff] to dynamic, pain free movement. This completely contradicts the notion of static stretching post exercise. In fact, numerous studies have found that when comparing static stretching to active recovery [stationary bike], the active recovery was better at returning strength and endurance performance to baseline over passive recovery and stretching. Furthermore, it has been found that static stretching pre- and post-eccentric exercise did not reduce DOMS whatsoever.
Recent work has suggested that return to activity should be based on full recovery of the muscles and tendons and that programs based solely on stretching resulted in poorer outcomes. Furthermore, stretching that produces pain [stretching past your comfort level, or the ROM you currently possess] has a negative effect on strength-based activities, lasting from 1-hour, up to several days [depending on the exercise being studied, with power and speed-based movements having the longest lasting negative effects produced from static stretching].
So, for me, the question is why is recovery important? Or, asked another way, what is the effect of recovery that we know to help with an increase in performance? Reduction of edema is a big one. Think of this as controlling inflammation. How can we control this? Depending on what you read, reduction of edema is reliant on free lymphatic fluid flow. Exercise can obstruct lymphatic uptake of fluids, thereby bringing about the negative effects associated with training [soreness, stiffness, poor performance]. Based off this principle, we have found that static stretching prior to or following exercise does not protect us from muscle soreness.
In a review of recovery modalities, Barnett said the following: “There is no compelling scientific evidence to support the use of contract temperature water immersion therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, compression garments, stretching, electromyostimulation, and combination modalities”. One would be wise to question the relevance and effectiveness of stretching in sport, particularly stretching for recovery.
Possibly the most heretical remark I have made as a coach is suggesting that stretching and the dedicated use of stretching sessions may not be necessary, especially since so many of our favorite athletes promote the benefits. In summary, stretching, like most other modalities, is more of a psychological benefit than a physiological one. If you are someone who feels great benefits from stretching post-exercise, it is important that you understand the pros and cons of this activity. Stretching to the point of discomfort will delay recovery, can impair subsequent training sessions, and produce other negative training effects. Stretching for increased flexibility is short-lived, takes tremendous amounts of time and energy, and is rather painful. Remember, we cannot have it all. The more I stretch, the less energy I have for the laundry-list of other areas I want to improve upon in my exercise journey.
When it comes to recovery, it would behoove you to ditch your static stretching protocols and hop on a stationary bike for a few minutes, which allows for blood flow and circulation [lymphatic flow].
For those of us who feel a certain way about the information presented, remember a few things. One, you have every right to believe in what you believe. If you feel that static stretching is imperative to your health, roll with it. But remember, that singular modality isn’t what makes you amazing; YOU ARE! Understand the power of the placebo. Is it the modality that is working, or is it my belief in that modality? I was there with you gang, I used to believe that static stretching was the key to increased performance. I was quickly put on my butt when I started to ask questions. My hope is that you take this information and make your own educated-assumptions and hypotheses from it, rather than letting it ruin your day. Just as I am against static stretching, I know there are tremendous benefits to many ways of producing a result, so, one last time, in case you missed it the previous half-dozen times I have said it: If you want to static stretch, go for it, I’ll support any decision you make as long as you are constantly asking yourself ‘why’!
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Mitchell Davis is the Director of Remote Coaching at Power Train Sports & Fitness. He is a PhD candidate at Liberty University where he is pursuing his doctorate in Health & Exercise Science. He has been a coach and educator for 13 years, serving in roles such as collegiate strength and conditioning coach, high school strength and conditioning coach, adjunct professor, personal trainer, and fitness consultant.