All athletes, recreational or competitive, have experienced the discomfort and debilitating effects of exercise induced muscle soreness and/or damage. This type of pain is often termed “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness” (DOMS). Symptoms most commonly arise at the beginning of the season when most of us re-introduce training or exercise after a prolonged period of relative inactivity. Symptoms vary from person to person, but usually include some or all of the following: muscle pain, tenderness, stiffness and weakness. While stretching has not been shown to actually prevent DOMS from occurring, it may help to reduce symptoms once present.
WHEN SHOULD I STRETCH?
Stretching should always follow a short warm-up prior to the exercise. The warm up exercise should work the main muscle groups that are going to be used during the exercise program (e.g. light jog, or walking prior to running).
HOW LONG AND OFTEN SHOULD I STRETCH?
Holding a stretch for 10-30 seconds has been shown to be the most beneficial. The stretch should be repeated approximately 2-3 times per muscle group. The longer the hold (30 seconds), the less repetitions needed. No significant difference has been found for stretching longer than 30 seconds.
HOW FAR SHOULD I STRETCH?
Stretching should never really be uncomfortable. You should stretch until you feel a certain amount of tension or slight pulling, but no pain. As the stretch is held, muscles tend to relax, and less tension is felt. At that point simply increase the muscle stretch again until you feel the original tension. Hold again. You can repeat this a third time provided that you continue to feel progressive increases in relaxation.
DOES HEAT OR ICE HELP IN STRETCHING?
Applying heat or ice (heat/ice pack) prior to stretching does not produce more gains than stretching alone. However, applying heat or ice while stretching can increase the muscle range of motion moreso than stretching alone. This phenomenon is mostly due to the fact that the ice or the heat produces an analgesic (pain killing) effect and one can stretch further.
For the most part, however, performing a short active warm up of 5-10 minutes prior to stretching, in order to raise your body core temperature, is not only the most beneficial in terms of preventing injuries but also the most practical.
WHAT TYPE OF STRETCH IS THE BEST?
In general, a static (held) stretch is superior to a ballistic (bouncing) stretch. Ballistic stretching can be useful for athletes involved in ballistic sports, such as gymnasts. However, for most people, ballistic stretching is not recommended because the muscle may reflexively contract if stretched too quickly, increasing the risk of injury.
IN SUMMARY …
- Maintaining muscle flexibility, even during the non-active months, can help reduce symptoms of muscle stiffness/pain after exercising.
- Always warm up and stretch prior to a bout of intensive exercise.
- Stretch until tension in the muscle is felt, hold statically for approximately 10-30 seconds (increasing the stretch as the tension felt reduces). Repeat 2-3 times.
- For added stretch benefits you can apply heat or ice while stretching.
And, finally, stretch carefully and take your time. If stretching increases your discomfort or does not help to alleviate your pain, discontinue stretching and see your Sport Medicine Physician or Physiotherapist.