• Stretching After Exercise: Does it Aid in Recovery?
    Learn about the body's adaptations to different types of post-workout activities. Did you know that serious stretching after a workout is contraindicated for recovery? Instead, avoid serious stretching after training and use a mild exercise to cool down.
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  • Stretching after exerciseRecovery
    Recovery means to return what was lost. In exercise, we think of recovery as more than this. We would like to believe that recovery following exercise does not simply return what was lost, but also enhances our function. This article will use the term “recovery-adaptation” to refer to the idea of enhanced function after exercise. Of course, immediately after exercise you will be tired. The effects of training are delayed for a period of one to several days after your exercise session.

    The delay of enhanced function has been called the long-term lag of training effect (16). Exercisers and athletes are often counseled to stretch following their workouts to enhance their recovery-adaptation; however, is this a good idea? Historically, it has been thought that stretching should reduce muscle stiffness and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (4,5).

    Exercise folklore on recovery-adaptation often encourages stretching following exercise with little or no justification. Recovery modalities are most frequently associated with enhancing blood and lymph flow in order to nourish muscles and remove waste products. For example, heat, cold, contrast (heat and cold), hydrotherapy, static compression, dynamic compression, vibration, mild exercise, electrical stimulation, and massage are all thought to enhance recovery due to their ability to enhance blood and lymph flow.

    Exercise folklore on recovery-adaptation often encourages stretching following exercise with little or no justification.


    Stretching
    Stretching is “…the application of force to musculotendinous structures in order to achieve a change in their length, usually for the purposes of improving joint range of motion, reducing stiffness or soreness, or preparing for activity,” (1). Pre-exercise stretching appears to have no effect on muscle soreness, tenderness, or loss of force following high-intensity eccentric exercise (7). Research by Cheung, Hume, and Maxwell showed dose-dependent positive effects on DOMS from anti-inflammatory medications, while massage depended on the type of technique used (3).

    They noted that cryotherapy, stretching, homeopathy, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation demonstrated no positive effect on the relief of muscle soreness (3). Stretching before or after exercise did not improve DOMS according to a study by Wessel and Wan (17). Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, stretching decreases blood flow (12). Blood flow, capillary region oxygenation, and velocity of red blood cells have been shown to decrease during stretching by several investigators (11,13,14). If a goal of recovery-adaptation modalities is to increase blood flow, it would appear that stretching after a workout does not help and may actually discourage blood flow.

    Although it may sound like heresy, serious stretching after workout is contraindicated for recovery (15). A paradox results when people who want to increase their flexibility are told to do their stretching following their workout when they are warm from the previous exertion. This paradox can be resolved by noting that application of both heat and cold can increase flexibility (2,6). Also, the key factor in developing flexibility is developing a “stretch-tolerance” which refers to one learning how to stretch rather than actually changing tissue structure and function (8,9,10). In short, avoid serious stretching after training and use a mild exercise to cool down.
  • Bill Sands

    About the Author:

    William A. Sands, PhD, CSCS

    William Sands has a wealth of experience as a coach, researcher, and educator. Most recently, Dr. Sands served as Education Director for the NSCA and Director of the Monfort Family Human Performance Research Laboratory at Colorado Mesa University. He has contributed research and coaching expertise with the U.S. Olympic Committee in the fields of exercise recovery, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. Dr. Sands coaching background is in gymnastics where he produced several Olympians, more than a dozen national team members, and several World Championship Team members.

    REFERENCES →

    1. Armiger, P, and Martyn, MA. Stretching for Functional Flexibility. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2010. 
    2. Barnett, A. Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes. Does it help? Sports medicine 36: 781-706, 2006. 
    3. Cheung, K, Hume, P, and Maxwell, L. Delayed onset muscle soreness: treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Medicine 33: 145-164, 2003. 
    4. De Vries, HA. Electromyographic observations of the effects of static stretching upon muscular distress. The Research Quarterly 32: 468-479, 1961. 
    5. De Vries, HA. Physiology of Exercise for Physical Education and Athletics. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown; 1966. 
    6. Herbert, RD, and Gabriel, M. Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: Systematic review. British Medical Journal 325: 468-473, 2002. 
    7. Johansson, PH, Lindstrom, L, Sundelin, G, and Lindstrom, B. The effects of pre-exercise stretching on muscular soreness, tenderness, and force loss following heavy eccentric exercise. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 9: 219-225, 1999. 
    8. Magnusson, SP. Passive properties of human skeletal muscle during stretch maneuvers. A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 8: 65-77, 1998. 
    9. Magnusson, SP, Simonsen, EB, Aagaard, P, Sørensen, H, and Kjaer, M. A mechanism for altered flexibility in human skeletal muscle. Journal Physiology 497: 291-298, 1996. 
    10. Marshall, PW, Cashman, A, and Cheema, BS. A randomized controlled trial for the effect of passive stretching on measures of hamstring extensibility, passive stiffness, strength, and stretch tolerance. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport 14: In Press, 2011. 
    11. Matchanov, AT, Levtov, VA, and Orlov, VV. Changes of the blood flow in longitudinal stretch of the cat gastrocnemius muscle. Fiziologicheskii Zburnal SSR Imeni IM Sechenova 69: 74-83, 1983. 
    12. Mika, A, Mika, P, Fernhall, B, and Unnithan, VB. Comparison of recovery strategies on muscle performance after fatiguing exercise. American Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 86: 474-481, 2007. 
    13. Poole, DC, Musch, TK, and Kindig, CA. In vivo microvascular structural and functional consdequences of muscle length changes. American Journal of Physiology 272: H2107-H2114, 1997. 
    14. Stainsby, WN, Fales, JT, and Lilienthal, JL. Effect of stretch on oxygen consumption of dog skeletal muscle in situ. Bulletin of the Johns Hopkins Hospital 12: 209-211, 1956. 
    15. Verkhoshansky, Y, and Siff, M. Supertraining. Rome, Italy: Ultimate Athlete Concepts; 2009. 
    16. Verkhoshansky Y. Programming and Organization of Training. Moscow, U.S.S.R.: Fizkultura i Spovt; 1985. 
    17. Wessel, J, and Wan, A. Effect of stretching on the intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 4: 83-87, 1994. 

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