So, you’ve finished your workout and you know you should stretch. But why, and what are the best types of after workout stretches?
Why Stretch after a workout?
Well, working out shortens and tightens our muscles. Stretching helps to reset to a more normal lengthened state. Also, taking the time to stretch allows the body to cool down gradually and return to a state of homeostasis. Furthermore, the movement of stretching helps to move toxins out of the tissues so we experience less muscle soreness. A case in point: In my training for a long charity bike ride I overdid it, riding for 4 hours with a lot of hill climbing. I was limping back home in the last 8 or so miles and I was already pretty sore. However, I spent 45 minutes stretching and doing some self-massage. I expected to wake up very sore but I was fine. I also got a therapeutic massage the next day so I really moved the toxins out – yes, I do practice what I preach.
What is the best way to stretch following a training session?
Dynamic Stretching, that I spoke about in my last blog, is not the best at this point in your cycle. Static long duration, or active isolated?
First, what is the difference between the two? Static stretching is, as the name suggests, a held stretch. And you hold it for at least 20 seconds or more. The 20-second hold is to get beyond the “stretch reflex” which is a hard wired protective response in the muscles. This response causes the muscle being stretched to contract to prevent the muscle from being overstretched injuriously. During a static stretch you will feel the subtle moment when the stretch reflex releases and you can sink deeper into the stretch. This is a great way to stretch following exercise! Especially if you have the time to luxuriate in those long stretches. And truly, it feels wonderful!
Active Isolated Stretching
What if you are pressed for time? There is another way to get some stretching in a shorter time frame called active isolated stretching. Remember the stretch reflex? It has a brief lag before it activates in a muscle. This is our brief window of opportunity to get a stretch and get out of it. One is not terribly effective, but studies show that there is a geometric increase in benefits as you repeat up to 7 times. After that the benefits continue to go up but not as radically.
There are 4 parts to this technique:
1. Isolate the muscle to be stretched.
2. Repeat 7 to 10 times.
3. Hold no more than 2 seconds.
4. Exhale on the stretch, inhale on the release.
How do you isolate a muscle? You engage the opposing muscle. So if you want to stretch the hamstring you activate the quads and hip flexors by actively pulling your leg into the stretch for the hamstring. That causes the hamstring to release tension and can be more easily stretched. Repetition increases the stretch and blood flow, thereby increasing the flow of nutrients into the muscle and the removal of waste product away which helps to reduce muscle soreness. Holding for no more than 2 seconds bypasses the stretch reflex. Lastly, focusing on your breathing helps to oxygenate the muscle for better performance and again, and reduced muscle soreness.
So, which is best for you? When time is short, I use Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), but when time isn’t a major issue I tend to use both static stretching and AIS. It’s great to have different techniques for every situation! And don’t forget Dynamic Stretching for your warm up before exercise!
At Asheville Therapeutic Massage we recommend stretching regularly to facilitate prolonging the benefits of your therapeutic massage session. Please check our website for further blogs and to book your next session!