1. Why and how stretching benefits the sportsperson. Can stretching alter results?

Personally I have never been a huge fan of stretching pre exercise. I have known many athletes who stretch religiously pre exercise only to suffer significant injuries. There are researchers that now believe that pre exercise stretching has no benefit and may even have a negative impact on performance (Witvrouw et al, 2004; Shrier, 1999; Wedderkopp et al, 1999). Even basic stretching may cause strains to the muscle – in fact one study shows that a 20% strain beyond the resting fibre length occurs in regular walking (Macpherson et al, 1996). Numerous studies have also found that stretching pre exercise may have a detrimental impact on jumping force (McNeal et al 200; Shrier, 2004).

This is not to suggest that an athlete should not warm up prior to exercise. A warm up will increase blood flow to the working muscles – and thereby increase oxygen and energy substrates. This warm up will increase muscle elasticity (Safran et al, 1988). My point is that in raising the core temperature it is important not to lose the muscle tone and the functionality of the muscle – particularly in explosive movements. By raising the core temperature and gradually increasing the functionality, explosivity and specificity of the movements now widely accepted as an appropriate warm up. It is often referred to as a dynamic warm up.

Stretching post exercise however is a different matter entirely. Stretching at the end of a session or competition may reduce muscle tension and increase overall range of motion (Anderson 1980). It is considered that this may prevent injuries in the long term. There is evidence to support that stretching improves flexibility and this increased flexibility may prevent and/or decrease injuries (Thacker et al 2004).

From a running point-of-view, intuitively I would think that if you can change the range of motion you might improve the speed of the athlete. I have always worked on the rule of stretch what you strengthen and strengthen what you stretch. This simply means that the muscles that have been lengthened in exercise do not need so much stretching and those that have been shortened need to be stretched. For running sports, stretching would include hamstrings, quadriceps and hip flexors. If an athlete is not moving efficiently you may be able to improve the mechanics of their action through a combination of strengthening and stretching exercises. I have seen this change in my coaching career many times, but I must stress that it is always multi factorial. That is, it is not just stretching alone that I believe to be the causative factor. It is nonetheless, a significant contributor to the overall biomechanical change and therefore, the performance.

One final point here would be the difference between an elite (professional?) athlete and the novice (Hobby) athlete. Whilst a warm up and stretching routine for the professional may be par for course, the serious hobby athlete may also be involved in activities such as labor intensive work, hunching over a desk, sitting for long periods of time, etc. A person in this situation would be well advised to spend more time on a gradual warm up and an extended period of time post exercise stretching those muscles that are counter to the free flowing athlete that they envision themselves to be.

2. Can an athlete over stretch?

As with most things, everything should be in balance. If an athlete is going to increase their stretching program they should also increase their overall conditioning and strength. Running is such a balanced activity. Stretching should relate to posture control and improved mechanics. Not just stretching for stretching sake. If a muscle group is sore/tight the athlete should be looking for the cause of the discomfort. The tightness may well be referred pain. For example pain down the hamstring may not indicate tight hamstrings. It could well be coming from the lower back or gluts or the thoracic region or even from the ankles. Stretching areas repeatedly as a response to tightness is not necessarily the best approach. Running speed is about running economy, force production and contraction velocity (Shrier, 2004). Moreso, it is about the interaction of each of these things. Remember, that whilst stretching can assist flexibility and mobility, too much stretching can actually damage the muscles (Macpherson et al, 1996). The greatest risk with overstretching is that it can cause an automatic myotatic reflex. When this occurs the muscle will recoil to protect itself from tearing and injury. That is, the muscle will shorten. Ironic that this is what many athletes are trying to prevent!

3. What do athletes need to be aware of when stretching?

Athletes should stretch after every training session and/or competition. Stretching should not be a painful activity but rather a nice way to conclude a session and gradually warm the body down. Also, understand that stretching is specific to every individual (and often to the sport that they participate in). It is relevant to posture and therefore running mechanics – and this is different for everybody. As I have said before, strengthen what you stretch and stretch what you strengthen. This will give you all over balance.

Athletes that are involved in running sports should however concentrate on several common areas of tension. These would include the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors and calves. Sometimes I see athletes absolutely hammering an area such as Achilles tendon. Of course for some this may be quite appropriate. But I am sure that in many cases the Achilles area needs strength not just increased inflammation from constant attempts to “stretch the pain away”.

Stretches post session should predominantly be static and should be held for between 20 – 30 seconds. This also applies for partner assisted (PNF) stretches. However, if the athlete is after a more permanent change, then the stretch should be held for 3 minutes (plastic stretch).

When preparing for a session or competition, the warm up will be more dynamic and stretches will be more ballistic in nature.

4. Having coached a number of sports what type of stretching do you advise athletes to do pre & post session?

Pre session:

Gentle run to warm up. Start by mobilizing the back by lying down and lifting the knees to chest. Rotate side to side and rock back and forth. You might also like to reach a leg to the alternate outstretched hand. Then start jogging. Move forward, sideways and backwards. The run should be quite slow and build in intensity as the warm up progresses. The preparation should involve specific movements that the runner is going to perform in the session or in carrying out the competition. If you feel that you just have to stretch, do these intermittently – say every 30-60 seconds. Include areas that are specific to your sport. In running sports this will of course include the legs but I am surprised that many runners neglect areas such as adductors which actually contract twice in each running cycle as opposed to the hamstring once in a cycle. Also, areas such as the upper back, which can become tight when running. This may have an impact on breathing and also on core strength as the shoulders become elevated. So the message is not just to concentrate on the areas such as calves and quadriceps but to listen to your body and spend time keeping yourself in balance.

Post session:

Total body stretching with an emphasis on relaxation and control. Work through the muscles involved in your sport and attend to each area. Hold each stretch for at least 20 – 30 seconds. It is good if you can use partner assisted stretches at this time. An alternative is to use a strap or belt to assist in stretches – particularly of the legs. One key area to include is the iliotibial band (Outside of the upper leg). Stretching this area can prevent problems with either the hip or knee.

Whilst not strictly on stretching, I am also an advocate of water rehabilitation post exercise. I believe that this has the added benefit of relaxing the muscle and makes stretching even easier. The different water pressure (and sometimes temperature) along with the movement in the water has a massaging effect and this can also help to sooth any post session soreness.

5: Any other comments you think would be useful on the subject of stretching?

Stretching does not have to be this boring thing that you add on to the end of a session. You should dedicate quality time to this and include it as a session in itself. Alternatives to “sole” stretching are pilates – which has the added benefit of improving posture and breathing and strength, and of course yoga. Lately I have had my athletes involved in Bikram yoga (this is done in a hot room). For those that are not so flexible this has been of some benefit. I like the idea of sport (not just running) being about improving the person as a whole. Sessions such as stretching, yoga, pilates, taichi, etc have the potential to emphasize more than just increasing range of movement. It gives an individual time to reflect on their performance and any other aspect of their lives that comes to mind. Stretching is not some great panacea but it is certainly an integral part of any balanced and focused program.