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Sunday, April 29, 2012
Okay fine, I will write something about stretching...
I want to start out this post by saying that I never had any intention of writing a post on my blog about stretching. It's a controversial topic in health and fitness that is still being studied. And I don't really have a strong opinion one way or the other. However, here's a short timeline illustrating what prompted me to get pissed off and write about it anyway
September 29, 2011:
Dr. Stephen Gangemi (aka The Sock Doc) publishes an article on BRS called "Stop Stretching!" I found it to be a very well-written yet one-sided piece about the subject.
Same day, a couple minutes after I read the article:
I begin to worry that folks are going to stop stretching on the Sock Doc's advice, start tightening up and hurt themselves.
December 19, 2011:
The Sock Doc begins offering "Only Bozos Stretch" t-shirts. Clowns everywhere are horrified.
This event doesn't have much to do with why I decided to post this. I just found the shirt amusing. I actually think this clown looks pretty happy to be doing a toe-touch. And he should be. Nobody likes to pull a hammy getting out of a clown car.
January 17, 2011:
I publish the instant classic "Yoga for Barefoot Runners" on my blog. Fans of stretch pants everywhere rejoice and hail me for bringing the debate back where it belongs...over discussions of ass versus boobs.
A couple of minutes later:
A bunch of people comment on the post or email me indicating that they stopped stretching on The Sock Doc's advice and now are either tighter than a Wall Street Exec at a Democratic fundraiser, injured, or both. They ask me my opinion on stretching.
I guess it's time to write something about it...
Now I'm not mad at The Sock Doc. He's just giving his opinion. But I do care about having an informed readership. And this is one of those topics where I have done some legwork so I can appropriate advise people I coach. It's time to drop another knowledge bomb on you.
I'm certainly not an expert in the field, but at least I'm not opinionated (or like many fitness experts, have a monetary interest in the subject). I could care less whether or not you stretch. It's your decision, and there are reasons to both stretch and not stretch. But I thought I would give you a little insight into what I've discovered through research, and then let you make your own decision about whether or not it's right for you.
What I know
The reason most trainers toss out static stretching like Kris Humphries at a Kardishian family picnic is supposed decreased athletic performance. That's because a few studies have shown a decrease in strength in areas like the vertical jump when measured immediately after stretching.
I get it. Nobody wants to be the trainer that programs stuff that makes people weaker. But usually folks forget to mention that the difference between the pre-stretch jump and post-stretch jump in those studies was around 3%. Can someone say "statistically significant"? Anyway...
Okay fine...I'd agree that if you stretch a muscle and then immediately try to use it, it's going to be weaker. Is it going to get weak enough that you're really going to notice? Probably not. And who even does that anyway? Do you do a hamstring stretch, and then immediately pop into a full-out run? No...you probably wait a few minutes. In which time, your range of motion slowly returns to normal. The longer you wait, the less effect the stretch had on your body.
So can stretching decrease your performance? Sure. But given the numbers I think that's a stupid reason to base your decision on whether or not to stretch. Here's a better one.
One area where research has shown benefits from stretching is in long-term improvements in strength. There are studies out there showing that a regular stretching program does not inhibit athletic performance in the long-term, and actually encourages muscle growth. Stretching can make you stronger?! Good news for meatheads!
But real runners can't jump or lift anything anyway. What about stuff that runners actually care about...like running economy? There you're not going to get a good answer. I've seen studies indicating that it both improves and decreases running economy.
What about injury prevention? Isn't that the reason why we're all supposed to stretch? Again, results are mixed. Most of the research on that topic concerns pre-exercise stretching. And there, you'll find some studies where stretching prevented injuries. You'll find some where it had no effect. Studies concerning post-exercise stretching have been similarly unhelpful. Most have shown a reduction in injuries that isn't statistically significant. So that result doesn't mean a whole lot.
There are more studies showing that stretching prevented injury than not. And I think anecdotally sports medicine professionals have seen that to be true. Kind of like barefoot running. We know something is right, but we can't prove it! That is, at least before they got freaked out about research applied incorrectly and became dogmatic.
That's a really broad overview of the murky pile of crap from which various experts draw wild conclusions about stretching. And what did we learn? I think it's pretty clear that there is a relationship between flexibility and muscle tension. On the other hand, there is a tenuous relationship between flexibility and more complicated issues like running economy or injuries. They both depend on so many factors that I doubt there's a way to study whether or not stretching has a positive or negative effect.
What you should draw from all of this is that the extreme positions of "don't stretch" or "stretching is the shit!" aren't appropriate for all athletes or all goals. Generally I find that the "don't stretch" camp are folks who are experienced endurance athletes and have good mobility to begin with. In that case, their argument makes sense. If you're already satisfied with your mobility, why change it? You might actually be hurting your running, or setting yourself up for future injury.
But if you're an inflexible bastard, then stretching has clear benefits. If you don't improve your mobility, you're going to stay an inflexible bastard. And if I were a betting man, I'd say you're inflexibility will catch up to you at some point and cause you injury (which happened to most of the people who emailed me). For those people, I think it's just plain stupid to not consider stretching as an option. Especially stuff like yoga, or PNF stretching. You think that rolling around on a piece of foam is going to magically transform you into a more bendy human?!
Or what if you're primarily a strength athlete? Why ignore studies that show stretching can increase your lift totals? I stretch to the bejesus because I know I'll get stronger!
Even if you decide not to stretch, it's important to note that "don't stretch" doesn't equal "don't do anything for mobility". After a workout, I doubt that the Sock Doc just sits around on his ass. He likely does self myofascial release. He's also a big MovNat fan, so his workouts no doubt incorporate dynamic stretches (which aren't really stretches, lest he have to eat his own shirts). Point being...you need to pay as much attention to your recovery as you do to your workout. Not doing so is likely what made you into an inflexible bastard in the first place.
So what do I advise most people? My general rule is much like that found in this article by Mike Boyle (the messiah of static stretching). Stretching can be a beneficial part of your warm-up. It can be a beneficial part of your cooldown. Don't be afraid of it, but don't be stupid about it either. Use as necessary.
And definitely don't trust a one-size fits all prescription for your body. Cheers citizens!