To stretch or not to stretch
I’m often asked if it’s beneficial or even necessary to stretch before or after a workout. Well, that depends…
Back in the day, it was advised that stretching before a work-out would reduce the chances of injury, and so we would bend forwards to touch the toes, lunge forwards and sideways and probably do a bit of arm stretching just for good measure, albeit for no good reason. However, recent studies have shown that static stretching (in which a position is held for at least 30 seconds) performed immediately before intense aerobic exercise, can briefly inhibit the muscles’ ability to produce power. So, for a short time after static stretching, you may not be able to sprint as fast or jump as high as you would without stretching.
However, a more dynamic warm-up does decrease the risk of muscle strain or rupture if you are about to embark upon intense aerobic exercise, particularly if it entails short explosive movements like sprinting, jumping or throwing. In this case, exercises like high knees, front kicks, back kicks (hit your glutes with your feet by bending your knee back), arm circles, hip circles (roll your leg out and to the front with a bent knee), squats and lunges will effectively warm the muscles and prepare you for exercise.
My husband’s participation in the Dads’ Race at school sports day last summer is a case in point. One minute he was sitting sipping Pimms and chatting, the next he was jostling with the other dads for a place in the 100m sprint final! It didn’t end well – about ten paces in, he strained a hamstring and relinquished his place in the final. Some “limbering up” could have prevented this shock to the hamstrings, although it’s a delicate balance to strike – temporarily damaging a hamstring or permanently damaging your playground credibility…
Before running or cycling, the most effective pre-exercise warm-up is simply to start the activity gently, until the muscles feel warm and mobile, before building up to a higher intensity.
Once your aerobic workout has finished and your heart rate has returned to normal, stretching the muscles that have just been working hard will help prevent future injuries. During exercise, the muscles contract and shorten to exert their force across a joint. Stretching afterwards helps the muscles return to their optimal length, so the next time you exercise, there’s less chance of injury.
So, there’s pre- and post-exercise stretching but there’s also stretching to improve or maintain flexibility for its own sake, especially as you get older. Regardless of whether you take part in gym workouts, walk the dog or run long-distances, the chances are that you spend more time sitting than moving. I always recommend taking part in a regular yoga or Pilates class, but a home-based daily stretching routine will also make a big difference. If you don’t move it, it’ll stop moving, and if you want to be able to tie your own shoelaces at the age of 90, start working on your flexibility!