There is much debate about when is the proper time to stretch and for how long. A typical workout, whether on your own, a workout video, class or even fitness magazine routine will have you stretching briefly prior to your workout and for a mere 5 minutes after the meat of the workout has concluded. But is this the right time to stretch and is it enough?
The most current exercise physiology research has been moving away from stretching before a workout. You always want to be sure you warm up before a workout, but you also should be warmed up before you stretch - stretching a cold muscle beyond its normal range of motion can cause muscle strains and pulls. But adding stretching after your pre-workout warm up may result in a second warm up since now your heart rate has decreased, requiring a second warmup. This is can be difficult to justify when you are already barely fitting your workout in for the day as it is. More importantly, current research has shown that stretching before a workout can cause more injury than prevent it as many people will stretch beyond the range of motion necessary for a typical workout. Unless your workout consists of high kicks, splits and heels to your butt, you are likely to pull a muscle beyond its normal range of motion. Stretching also causes micro tears in your muscle fibers, which is fine when stretching post workout since you are now relaxing and allowing your body to repair itself, but can cause further muscle damage during a hardcore workout (which you all should be doing right?). All you need pre-workout is 10+ minutes of warm up (or as long as you feel necessary) before intensifying your workout.
The best time to stretch is after your workout, but how soon after and for how long? Recent studies have shown that marathon runners who stretched immediately after completion of their longer runs or a race were at greater risk for injury than those who waited about 30 minutes after the run. The reason for this is after an endurance workout - one or more hours - your muscles are so limber and warm, yet been used in a consistent motion, you risk pulling on your muscle more than you normally would than if your muscles were cold. And since so many people don't ease into a stretch, muscle pulls again become a common problem. Think of the last time you stretched your quad muscles (upper thighs). Did you warm up a bit and slowly and gently bring your heel to your butt or did you just kick your heel to your butt, grab, pull and hold? Pretty extreme considering your leg never did that before or during your workout yet, there you go, kicking yourself in the a** again! Additionally, your muscles are shredded after a long workout, give them a bit of time to recover - 15-30 minutes should suffice.
How Long Should You Stretch?
You should hold a stretch for each muscle utilized (which really is all of them) for at least 30 seconds, after easing into the stretch. And then, you will want to add a stretching routine to your fitness regimen. Look into taking a Yoga class, video or whatever you may have at your disposal. There are so many types, some more relaxing, others that will feel like an intense workout on their own, but all will provide you with a great stretch. A good class or session will last at least 60 minutes, will be in a room at at least 80 degrees F and will ease you in to the stretches, allowing for safer and more effective stretching. These longer sessions prepare your muscles for the workout they are about to receive. Yes, stretching is a workout as you are tearing muscle fibers just as you do when lifting weights. It is the repair of these micro tears that helps you build muscle and become stronger and more flexible. The stretches are deeper than you may normally do on your own, but a proper class will get your body prepared for deep stretching.
Types of Stretching
There are five types of stretching - static, dynamic, ballistic, active and passive.
Static stretching is what we are all most familiar with. You move into a stretch gradually, comfortably and through even movement and hold in place for 10-30 seconds. It's a forward bend to touch your toes and just hold. While simple and most common, it is losing popularity among fitness professionals as a means to improve range of motion for functional movement.
Dynamic stretching involves moving a body part gradually into a larger range of motion over a period of time by moving through a challenging range of motion repeatedly over of period of time - usually 10-12 repetitions. This consists of controlled arm, leg or torso movement that gently takes you into your range of motion. Because dynamic stretching appears to improve range of motion in functional (everyday) movement, it is gaining popularity among fitness professionals.
Ballistic stretching (not to be confused with dynamic stretching) uses movement to take your muscles BEYOND their normal range of motion, typically through "bouncing" the muscle into the stretch until you "bounce" beyond your normal range of motion. This is the least recommended type of stretching and should rarely, if ever, be attempted.
Active stretching allows you to move slowly into your range of motion with no assistance other than the strength of your agonist muscles (the muscles that cause the motion). You assume your stretching position, move into the stretch but engage agonist muscles. The tension on the agonist muscles allow the muscles actually being stretched to relax.
Passive stretching is active stretching with assistance. After moving into your stretching position, you either assist the stretch with another part of your body or with a partner or other apparatus (i.e. a ballet bar or your kitchen counter).
Find what what types of stretching work best for you, just ber certain it is part of your routine and treated just as importantly as the rest of your workout.