Stretching, the truth.
September 2, 2010 8:56 PM   Subscribe

Yeah, this is all over the place today and I'm a little confused because I'm pretty sure it's old news. Haven't we known for years that there are more benefits to stretching after exercise than before?
posted by dersins at 9:04 PM on September 2, 2010 [6 favorites]

Yeah, what dersins said, I've definitely read that from some of the athletes on AskMe.
posted by amro at 9:08 PM on September 2, 2010

I'm certain that I read it in either Running or Runner's World magazine two or three years ago when I was first getting into running.
posted by oddman at 9:11 PM on September 2, 2010

I haven't stretched before exercise for years. After, yes. I don't know anyone who stretches first.
posted by unSane at 9:19 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Stretching before exercise (and especially stretching before competing) were considered a bad idea when I was training heavily in the 90s. I'm surprised that people continue to believe stretching before exercise helps in some way.
posted by ssg at 9:25 PM on September 2, 2010

I've injured myself more times due to stretching than I can count. Both before and after. I've finally given up on "stretching". Yoga on the other hand (not directly before or after exercise) has been great.
posted by Octoparrot at 9:28 PM on September 2, 2010

Yes but a bit stretching after running can help keep you from ending up with a restricted range of motion of your limbs.

I've seen studies that show even stiff shoulders can cause running to be more difficult and slow. Flexibility is one of the things that goes fast with age if you don't occasionally stretch.

But this study doesn't go into this aspect of stretching. What I'm afraid of is that people will read about this and decide that all stretching is useless.

To create a mental image that illustrates my point, just imagine if Bruce Lee never stretched.
posted by eye of newt at 9:28 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ever since I was 13 or so, if I don't stretch my knees before competition (basketball was the main one growing up) they would seize up on me within the first few minutes of play. Pain and stiffness. If I stretched them first all would be OK. I never worried about or paid attention to stretching the rest of my body. Also, I was very active in sports during the late '70s and throughout the '80s and it was the norm to stretch before each game/practice. I guess things have changed (for the most part) but I only heard about this about six months ago.
posted by bfootdav at 9:31 PM on September 2, 2010

But does the withdrawal method work?
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 9:39 PM on September 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is what works really well for most people: Warm up a little -> light stretching or mobility work for muscle activation -> warm up a little more -> perform.

I think this study emulates how the average person who stretches before physical activity stretches though:
The second group stretched, having received photographs and specific instructions for a series of simple, traditional poses, like leaning over and touching toes, that focused on the calf, hamstring and quadriceps muscles. The volunteers were told to hold each stretch for 20 seconds, a technique known as static stretching. The entire routine required three to five minutes and was to be completed immediately before a run.

All that type of cold, static stretching, really isn't going to do anything except possibly injure the person or make their performance worse. (I think the article touches on that some)
posted by zephyr_words at 9:45 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I started really getting in to working out, I also started stretching. And I got a lot more flexible! I'd never been able to do things like touch my toes but after a few months of stretching I was able to if I just barely bent my knees.

So it does actually make you more flexible. That said, other then 'being able to do it' there didn't seem to be much practical benefit.

This was with doing stretches every night for a long time.
posted by delmoi at 10:12 PM on September 2, 2010

Speaking as someone studying sports massage/PT:

You only need to have your body able to move for the range of motion that you plan on doing for the exercise and activity at hand.

If you stretch beforehand, beyond that normal range you expect to do, you're resetting your muscle spindles to expect that greater range - and lose stability in the process, opening yourself up to injury. You DO want to move through the motions you'll be doing, you DO want to give some force and speed to reset those spindles to be able to go through the full thing without muscle strains, but you don't want to be setting them to do other things.

That general advice aside, given that running injuries are mostly the result of full body weight impacting ankles and knees regularly, it's not a lack of flexibility that's the problem, it's coming down to form, form, form and how well your ligaments and cartilege will hold up under constant slamming.
posted by yeloson at 10:21 PM on September 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd say the most important (and overlooked) thing about running is warming up. You gotta first start walking and get your legs in the mode. Slowly work your way into a light jog. Only when you've been jogging for a bit (it also helps immensely to run, whenever possible, on grass) should you kick into your "normal" or "on form" pace.

A lot of people I see when I'm out running just start running with strong strides (and I can almost hear their poor knees, grumbling).

Also, a cool-down stage before stopping is helpful...

Stretching after it's all over has worked the best for me. I usually do slow stretches that derive their tension from my own body weight. I don't "force" the stretching; rather I just do slow stretches that take a while and I find these soothe better (for example, stand on a curve and hold on to something nearby and just let your body weight stretch your calf, without adding extra pounds of pressure).

I guess that was mostly a digression...haha
posted by fantodstic at 10:39 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm like bfootdav -- if I don't stretch, my knees will completely stop me from doing whatever I'm doing after 10 minutes. And I try to be really mindful of the stresses (torque, mainly) I put on my knees; that is, I make sure my primary muscles are bearing most of the strain, and I make sure auxiliary muscles take off any stress that would go to my knees.
posted by spiderskull at 11:24 PM on September 2, 2010

Echoing those who say this is old news. Do dynamic stretching/mobility work (air squats, unweighted lunges, caroica, leg swings, butt-kickers, etc) before, static stretching after. Only do static stretching if there's a muscle group so immobile that not stretching it out beforehand would limit your ROM and provoke injury.
posted by Anonymous at 11:41 PM on September 2, 2010

I'm not sure the right message is being put forward here. It's not that stretching isn't useful, it's that the way stretching is commonly performed is not (allegedly) offering benefits. In other words, static stretching is out but they go on to say that active stretching IS now believed to be good:
"In practice, dynamic stretching would mean that, instead of leaning over and touching your toes or pushing against a wall to stretch your calves before running, you might raise your leg before you in a marching motion, and then swing it back, in a well-controlled arc.."
But, as a scientific study this still seems dubious (ok, I haven't gone through and read everything). How are they deciding that "injuries" are attributable to the stretching? When I read a paragraph like this:
"One anomalous finding of the USA Track and Field study was that runners who were used to stretching and were assigned to the nonstretching group became injured at a disproportionately high rate. Almost 23 percent of them wound up hurting themselves during the three months. But no experts associated with the study or who have read the results believe that this finding intimates that stretching had been keeping them uninjured in the past. More likely, Dr. McHugh said, they fell victim to a training error, which, he explained, “in reality can mean any abrupt change in training patterns. Your body adapts to its routine, and if that routine is monotonously habitual as with many runners, it doesn’t take much of a change to cause an injury.”"
I keep wondering if purported anomalies or differences or injuries wouldn't be distributed in the same fashion if they wore a hat or went a different route or ate a different breakfast or changed running shoes or only ran on a track or whatever. I'm not saying I disagree with the conclusions necessarily, but I'm more persuaded by physiological/anatomical arguments than I am by a group study like this one.
posted by peacay at 11:43 PM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okay, here's what I've been taught, by chiropractors and PTs and that old book on stretching written by the guy that's always wearing some wacky hat (here it is).

And all these people have told me about, oh, bending toward, for example, my toes but only until there is a pull-back, and then holding there, NOT pushing it, just staying there. And then, after ten or fifteen seconds, the muscle unlocks, and allows a deeper stretch. Again, not pushing it, but just slowly moving into it. Never to pain. But instead to where the stretch is comfortable, is all.

I've been doing that for years, when I do stretch, and I actually do feel the muscle lock, and then unlock once it feels safe, and then move into that deeper stretch. And now I'm to assume that this is all jive, and not helpful, that seems to be what I'm reading here and in the article.

I've been poised to purchase this from Amazon -- it's been in an open tab since someone here referenced it maybe ten days ago -- poised to buy it in hopes of opening up my calves and hamstrings and glutes and low back, seeking more flexibility in my yoga practice.

I'm 55, it's taking me forever for these muscles and ligaments to open up. Today is my three year anniversary of starting yoga and while I'm more flexible than I was 3 years ago, if I were more flexible I could move deeper into the practice. My intention, if I were to buy that, would be to stretch prior to and after my practice. I know this isn't AskMe but if anyone can tell me that I'm heading down a wrong path, this would be great to know now. And: A good book or dvd or vids online showing "The New Stretching" would be good, if anyone has any to recommend.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:12 AM on September 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do combat soldiers stretch before going on patrol? Watching Band of Brothers, I bet Easy Company didn't stretch or warm-up at all before jumping out of those planes.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:11 AM on September 3, 2010

I recently started exercising again, and was strongly warned against doing strenuous physical activity without static stretching by several people. I had been doing my workout for about two weeks without stretching, but after hearing the warnings, I considered myself lucky I hadn't hurt myself after 10 years + of a sedentary lifestyle. Fearing injury, I followed suggestion and began stretching before working out. I quickly discovered that my muscles felt weaker and I was unable to keep up the routine for as long.

I actually stopped stretching due to there not being enough time in the mornings recently. While I again noticed the increased strength and stamina, I figured it was possibly a fluke or something I'd pay for later for not stretching, and really never made a direct connection for now.

Now I know though, and knowing is half the battle....
posted by Debaser626 at 6:46 AM on September 3, 2010

From an evolutionary point of view, the requirement for stretching or even warm-up before strenuous exercise seems dubious.

When those sabre-toothed tigers wanted to make a meal of our asses back in the cave days, a delicate suite of warm-up exercises was not an option.

When the neighboring Oog tribe suddenly decided it wanted to partake of your clan's goodies, they'd sneak by at night with their stone clubs hoping to flatten your noggin. So not only did you have to sprint, you had to do it from a state of cold grogginess. No allowances were made for stretching in the neolithic combat code.

Homo sapiens, bred to run.
posted by storybored at 7:45 AM on September 3, 2010

I doubt there is one way which is ideal for everybody. I do not stretch before or after vigorous exercise. I start really slow and end with a few minutes of really slow. When I do stretch it is a yoga set or a ballet set, and I think it is beneficial. For me working out is one thing and stretching is something else and they are complementary but long stretches and hard workouts do not mix well.
posted by bukvich at 8:05 AM on September 3, 2010

Do combat soldiers stretch before going on patrol?

Not exactly combat soldiers, but...

Rule #18: Limber Up.
posted by Shepherd at 8:12 AM on September 3, 2010

Bullshit. Next they're going to tell us that moving your head from side to side to crack your neck doesn't help before a kung-fu battle.
posted by digsrus at 9:10 AM on September 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know that, for my body, if I start running about vigorously without doing any stretching first there's about a 1 in 3 chance I'll pull a groin. I find all these young whipper-snappers who want to run about before getting into their dynamic stretching quite tiresome. How a particular body responds to this sort of thing has got to be a bit more personal than the data in this study suggests IMO.
posted by robertc at 2:30 PM on September 3, 2010

I like that joke about did you ever see a lion stretch because that's about half of what they spend their time doing when they're awake.

Not that we are feline, or anything....
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:46 PM on September 3, 2010

There are two different kinds of stretching here, the pre warmup/limber up that some need and a little is good. And deep stretching to increase a particular area of flexibility. The second will only be effective when the muscles are warmed up, that's when to take time like dancestoblue describes and stretch to a limit, gently pause. then ease into the stretch a bit more. (never bounce, ease). Learn how dancers stretch, certainly easier starting at age 3 but I was almost out of my teens and developed a lot of limber. But it does take a lot of time.
posted by sammyo at 3:21 PM on September 3, 2010

So it does actually make you more flexible.

I couldn't touch my toes without bending my legs two months ago. Now I can touch my knees with my nose while wrapping my hands around my feet. Persistence works.

Oh, and that's with stretching before and after exercise. Warning people not to stretch before exercise seems fundamentally dumb, since exercise is basically just stretching with a purpose. Now, that's not to say you should go full-hog, because OVER stretching cold muscles can cause injury. But simple, easy, not-pulling-limbs-out-of-sockets stretching? No different than any other light warm-up.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:55 PM on September 3, 2010

Of course you don't have to stretch before exercise. You also don't have to wash your hands after going to the bathroom, or avoid eating rotting meat, but that doesn't make it a good idea.

Something to remember about the "Ogg"/Army/Whatever argument is that people going on marches in armies and neolithic cavemen generally have relatively active lifestyles. They don't spend a lot of time sitting in chairs, browsing the internet, their muscles stiffening up, their thoracic arch collapsing, and their posterior chain wasting away. A guy who spends his day moving does not need the same amount of warm-up as a typical sedentary American does today.
posted by Anonymous at 5:57 PM on September 3, 2010

I was reflecting on this thread while stretching out at the gym today and just wanted to make a comment about this:

From an evolutionary point of view, the requirement for stretching or even warm-up before strenuous exercise seems dubious.

When those sabre-toothed tigers wanted to make a meal of our asses back in the cave days, a delicate suite of warm-up exercises was not an option.

I'm not sure why evolution really has a big contribution to make here - strenuous exercise without stretching only has to be better for you than dying, it doesn't have to be better for you than stretching before strenuous exercise.
posted by robertc at 9:37 AM on September 4, 2010

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