A recovery debate - to stretch, or not to stretch?


Following on from our muscle cramps blog we've put together a piece on stretching to complim 

A subject filled with mystery and debate, it is something that almost everyone has an opinion on. Some swear by it, while others argue that it is physiologically impossible, it seems that the only thing people can agree on, is that no one can agree. Here we attempt to debunk some of the myths surrounding the practice, explain what it is, what it does and doesn’t do, summarise the arguments for and against it, and finally make some common sense recommendations that will be able to help you go faster. 

What is stretching? 

Even this some cannot agree on, but it is generally accepted that stretching is the placing of a body part of parts into a position which then results in the lengthening of the muscle and associated tissues. This can be done either passively, or actively. Active stretching is what is most common to us all, and is defined as a stretch that occurs when the muscle is contracted. This is compared to passive stretching, which is done when the muscle is in a relaxed state (often with the aid of a manual therapist). 

The stretch is controlled primarily by two components of the muscles, the muscle spindles and the golgi tendon organs. The role of these is to measure muscle length and tension within the muscle and at the musculotendinous junction respectively. So when you find that a muscle does not want to move beyond a certain point in the stretch, for example, it is these two receptors that are sending sensory signals to your central nervous system, forcing the muscle to contact in order to prevent further lengthening and therefore damage.  

Why stretch?

Flexibility and Range of Motion: The main benefit many see from stretching, is the improvement or restoration of ones range of motion, which then leads to an improved degree of or restored functionality. In a study carried out by the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy (LC Decoster, J Cleland, C Altieri, P Russell- 2005) it was concluded that stretching of the hamstring muscles did improve its range of motion, regardless of what position the muscle was stretched from, while other studies also indicate the same across a various range of muscle groups, so we can conclude that in terms of achieving this purpose, there is little doubt that it does indeed work. 

Injury Prevention: Stretching is thought and seen by many to prevent injury, based on the principle that a longer or ‘less tight’ muscle is less susceptible to damage when placed under stress by exercise. However, there appears to be little evidence to support this. In a compilation of the literature on the subject to date, published in 2010 (Stephen B. Thacker, Julie Gilchrist, Donna F. Stroup, and C. Dexter Kimsey, JR.), it was concluded that there was no significant correlation between improved flexibility and injury prevention. In other words, stretching did not increase the risk of injury, but it did not reduce it either. There was some indication that muscle tightness could increase the risk of injury, however in the study conducted, both the least and most flexible individuals, i.e. the extremes at both ends of the spectrum, were the ones most susceptible to injury.

Enhanced Recovery: Many athletes swear by stretching as part of their recovery process, stating that it reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness and that they feel fresher and more able for the workout that follows as a result of it. Again the literature appears to conclude that this is not the case, with little in the way of evidence to support such a theory (Barnett 2006). However, the impact of the placebo effect in such cases is not to be dismissed, with various studies showing almost unanimously that a positive attitude to training and competition results in improved performance. In other words, if you feel or think you are more recovered, then the chances are the impact on your performance will be positive, regardless of any change at a physiological level. 

Warm Up: I’m sure almost everyone reading will recall a time when they ran around some form of sports pitch, running from corner to corner, standing in a circle and consorting themselves in some form awkward position at each turn. Why? Because it’s what the coach did, and what his coach before him did, and so on. As it turns out, however, we could all have been doing ourselves more harm than good. A number of studies have concluded that stretching prior to exercise not only has no effect on performance but actually inhibits it (I. Schrier- 2004). The reason for this is down to how a muscle contracts, as when stretching, one is moving the two attracting components of a muscle fibre (actin and myosin) further apart, thereby reducing the attraction between them and resulting in a weaker contraction of that muscle. 

So, to stretch or not to stretch?

It is important to remember, that as cyclists, our bodies will adapt to the demands of what it is we do. We ride with our hip flexors and hamstrings in a shortened position, our shoulders will be rounded when we are on a bicycle. However, these are adaptations that our body has made, more often than not to actually improve our performances. Anatomically, we adapt and varying tension relationships exist between our different muscle groups as a result, relationships that we do not always want to upset. So just because you have shorter hip flexors than a runner, for example, doesn’t make you any less healthy, nor will having longer hip flexors result in you being a better cyclist. Actually, to the contrary, it will more than likely make you slower! 

As we have demonstrated above, there are times and reasons why you should stretch, as well as times and reasons why you should not. It would be easy to conclude from the above that stretching is bad, or that it is of no benefit, this, however, is not the case. If you are someone who's performance is limited or restricted by their range of motion, say for example on a time trial bike, where the more aggressive position has resulted in a significant reduction in power output, then stretching could be a way to address this. However, if you are stretching immediately prior to your road race or time trial in a bid to improve performance for example, then stopping that would most likely be a wise move. 

Simply ask yourself this. Do I believe that I am going slower because I am not flexible or because my range of motion in a certain area is limited? Be this in terms of aerodynamics, or because of pain generated from muscle tightness and adhesion. If the answer is yes, then stretching will most likely aid in improving that. If you think that you are not adequately warmed up, that you are not recovering well between workouts, or that you are frequently injured, the chances are stretching will not resolve these issues. 


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