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When Should You Stretch to Improve Performance?



Think back to those days when you were in middle or high school, in your gym class or before your sport practice, what was the first thing you did before class? A group stretch, right? And if you ask around, usually people will tell you stretching is important to prevent injury and to get your body warmed up before a run. So what do we all do before exercise? Stretch.

I hear this a lot with my athletes and it is one of the areas I focus on to help people to quickly improve their performance. Because what I tell people is to NOT stretch before a run and definitely NOT to stretch before a race or event. There are a lot of misconceptions out there when it comes to what you should do before a run. Here I’ll help clarify one of the biggest misconceptions you hear, stretching before your run.

WHY STRETCH

Stretching is best used to help build elasticity in the musculo-tendon junction but it also helps to relax the muscle from repeated contractions during a workout. Typically what can happen is, if you do not stretch as part of your workout routine, the muscle belly ends up contracting and contracting and contracting, until you end up developing less elasticity and you get that “tight” sensation. Typically this wouldn’t be an issue but if you continue to workout and try to improve your performance, this loss in elasticity ends up taking the rug out from underneath you. Your performance starts to suffer, your body develops compensations to try to compensate for the lack of elasticity, and, if left alone, ends up developing into poor posture, pain, and possibly injury.



A lot of the poor running posture I tend to see in my running athletes has a lot to do with inflexibility in the joints (read my BLOG - 4 Running Postures that Cause Back Pain for more information on body posture). The way I like to try and relate this problem is like this: think of a tight muscle or body segment like turning your car 180 degrees around. When you are flexible, you are able to rotate the wheel to allow your car to make a smooth turn. Think of a small car like a Fiat, that turn radius is easy. When you start to develop shortening and tightening, you limit the amount you are able to turn your car around. Think of a large semi-truck, very difficult to make a 180 deg turn. The same is true for your muscles. If you have an area around a joint that is “tight” and you lack flexibility around that joint, you are basically robbing yourself of potential muscle contracting movement, thus limiting your performance and limiting your ability to move. Basically you are becoming your biggest limitation.



WHEN TO STRETCH

Now when it comes to the question of when to stretch, most newer and highly reliable data out there shows that stretching before a workout actually limits your potential and hinders your performance. The details as to why that is are complex and detailed but the basics are you rob your muscles’ ability to contract efficiently when you stretch. So though you were taught to stretch before you workout, every time you do that you are actually decreasing your exercise performance. Now, that is not to say you should just go out there and go from 0% to 100% when you exercise. The best method for you to prime your body for activity is to actually do a light aerobic activity 15 minutes before you begin. So if you are about to go for a run, you actually want to do a light jog (well below your pace average) before you kick it into high gear. The idea is more to get your heart rate up, blood flow pumping, and muscle and tissues ready.


The best time to stretch is actually immediately after your workout. You have been doing repeated contractions for the last 30, 45, 60+ minutes and the muscle belly has shortened some. The body has built up a level of lactic acid (exercise waste), your heart rate will be elevated, your body temperature will be elevated, and you have an oxygen deficiency. All making for the best opportunity to stretch and recover.


FUNCTIONAL FLOWS

Now when it comes to stretching for my running athletes, I actually recommend what I call a “Functional Flow.” This is something very similar to a yoga flow but I have my athletes focus on their body and muscles in movements that relate to the exercise and activity just performed, i.e. a “functional flow.” The best way to go through a flow is to actually do it along with me, so I’ve created a video for you to do with me.

All you need is a little open space, not even a yoga mat (though it helps). I’ve done this flow on the grass in a park right after runs, on a carpeted floor, and in hotel rooms. So join me and once you memorize the routine, try adding it to the end of all your runs.


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Next week, I’ll be focusing on VO2 Max testing and the best ways to utilize it in your training routine. VO2 Max testing is a great way to keep track of your progress, prevent injuries, and to take your training to a new PR!





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