For all athletes, recreational and elite, it is important that stretching as a means of warm-up as well as recovery, be incorporated into their training schedules in order to achieve optimal performance. There are many theories and anecdotal stories of what one should or shouldn’t do to attain the best results. And while there are indeed differences amongst individuals in how they respond to one or the other, I hope to review the current literature to help dispel any myths or fallacies.
Stretching is probably the most known form of recovery but often the least used as it can require time and may cause discomfort. There are three different types of stretching: static-active, static-passive, and dynamic. Static-active requires the use of against muscles to retain a stretch of a certain muscle group (ie using your quads and hip flexors to lift a straight leg up to stretch the hamstring). Static-passive uses another body part or a partner to maintain, or hold the stretch, and dynamic stretching involves the use of momentum and active muscle strength to produce a stretch.
Many studies recently have revealed the differences in effectiveness regarding the various types of stretching. A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research conducted by Sonja Herman and Derek Smith on 24 NCAA wrestlers examined the effects of a dynamic stretching versus a static stretching warm-up on athletic performance. The study concluded that dynamic stretching in warm-up resulted in an increase in muscle strength, endurance, agility, and anaerobic activity, whereas static stretching actually decreased performance in the test. There have also been several studies over the last 3 years that have shown increases in vertical jumping immediately after doing a dynamic stretch of the calf. Meanwhile, passive stretching prior to the jump actually hinders performance.
Physiologically, this makes sense. Why? Because when you stretch a muscle, you obviously lengthen it and when you use a muscle it contracts or shortens. But what many don’t know is that if a stretch is held long enough, as most static-passive stretches are, the muscle may be acutely damaged, so to speak, and stay stretched or elongated. That in turn temporarily decreases the maximum effectiveness of the muscle to shorten, slide and contract, as the actin and myosin fibers line up and performance suffers.
While dynamic stretching seems to be an overwhelmingly positive influence on performance prior to exercise, after reviewing extensive articles on post-exercise and the effects of stretching on recovery, there was no significant evidence of an increase in physical performance. All types of stretching were studied following exercise with passive being the most studied, but no performance enhancement was observed either a few hours later nor the next day following the passive stretching session. However, it has been found that stretching post-exercise does reduce soreness in the muscles. And psychologically, subjects reported a decrease in their perceived level of fatigue after stretching.
So, in summary, my advice across the board would be this: dynamic stretching before exercise is a must to achieve optimal performance for most individuals. Furthermore, even though performance does not improve, it did not get worse in any of the cases, and I would also recommend static-passive stretching following exercise in the very least to decrease soreness. But, if you’re someone like myself, always pushed for time and trying to squeeze workouts in, keep the dynamic and skip the passive.