Stretching is a natural and instinctive movement. When we wake up, we extend our legs to break out of the stiffness of slumber. After sitting at a desk for several hours, it can feel good to lift the arms overhead and reach up high through the fingertips. But there is some confusion around stretching and when or how to do it before or after a workout.
To understand stretching, we have to understand how the muscle works. Imagine your fingers are muscle fibers. When you intertwine your fingers and pull your palms together, like you’re praying the Falcons don’t lose their season opener, it’s hard to pull your hands apart. But if you relax your grip you can easily slide your hands apart. The working muscle is like your hands clasped tight together, and stretching helps return the muscle to its normal length.
Some people may have heard that stretching is bad. The confusion here lies in the fact that there are actually several different forms of stretching. Today I’m going to focus on the types of stretches most people can perform on their own.
When someone says, “don’t stretch before you work out” they’re typically talking about acute stretches – stretches that only target one muscle or joint at a time. While these stretches can increase range of motion, they can decrease performance because they cause too much lengthening of the muscle. But when performed after a workout several times a week, static stretches can help improve strength, power, endurance, mobility and flexibility. If we neglect to stretch after a workout, the body has to work a lot harder to move because tight muscles can’t fully activate within their functional range of motion.
Stretching does still have an important role to play before working out. Dynamic stretches involve moving the muscles through the range of motion of the activity using little to no resistance. These movements involve a controlled contraction and release of the working muscles, such as arm circles, leg swings, or trunk rotations. This effectively primes the body for movement and can play an especially crucial role in injury prevention.
Another important form of stretching is myofascial release. A therapist can physically manipulate the muscle to release through trigger point therapy or massage. Or we can do it ourselves with foam rolling. Before a workout, foam rolling helps promote blood flow to the areas that will be working the hardest. I have seen many clients benefit greatly from rolling their glutes and hamstrings, especially if they’ve spent the majority of the week sitting. After a workout – but not immediately after a hard workout – foam rolling can help release knotted muscles and restore full range of motion. But if someone is exceptionally sore from a workout, they need to wait before rolling. Too much too soon can increase inflammation and with it, recovery time. When in doubt, schedule a sports massage.
Below is an abbreviated version of everything I shared here. Be sure to share this simple page with someone you know who comes limping into the office after a hard workout or race!
In partnership with Big Peach Running Company and Trigger Point we'll be presenting a stretching and foam rolling clinic SATURDAY, 9/22. Run at 7:30AM, clinic at 9:00!
If you're in Atlanta, click here for more event information and about our Fall Half Marathon training runs!
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