Growing up as a competitive swimmer, being more flexible was drilled into us. We would spend a good 15-20 minutes limbering up before every practice. The thought at the time was two-fold: 1) being more flexible reduced the risk of joint injury; and 2) increased flexibility helped us swim faster. In college, I would keep this practice alive by heading down to the pool a solid 30 minutes ahead of time and take myself through a pre-workout stretching routine.
The jury still seems to be out on whether or not stretching enhances performance. Part of this is due to the various types of stretching – static, dynamic, ballistic … you name it. Part of this is also due to people not knowing how to properly stretch or which stretches will elicit the best results. Despite the simplicity of the act of stretching, there is a bit of confusion around it.
I’m not here to advocate for or against stretching. Largely, athletes know whether or not the act of stretching makes them feel better or not day-to-day. Personally, I like stretching. I go through a short 10-minute routine as I wind down for the night. Going through a series of static stretches – ones that I hold for 20-30 seconds each, is a perfect way to relax the muscles and transition into my bedtime routine. And, during a strength session at the gym, a few seconds of ballistic movements pre-lift at least feels like it activates the muscles about to be engaged.
If you do choose to stretch, there are definitely some “do’s and don’t’s” to which you should adhere. For example, static stretching should not be done during a workout or prior to a competition. Studies show that holding a pose for an extended period of time fatigues the muscles and inhibits proper neuron firing. The punchline of this is that fatigued muscles do not perform optimally. And, if you stretch after your warm-up and before your main set, you open yourself up to potential injury (especially in the case of something like a track workout in running). If you feel the need to do some sort of stretching during workouts or before competition, resort to ballistic stretching. Ballistic stretching is when you hold a position for just a couple seconds or less. A classic ballistic stretch is one that swimmers do, when they cross their arms in front of their chests and then arc them behind their backs and clap their hands together before swinging them back to the front and then back again, over and over. With ballistic stretching, you are effectively taking a muscle through its full range and back to the starting position, quickly but in control and multiple times in a row. Ballistic stretching awakens the muscles and prepares them for the rigors ahead. That said, ballistic stretching isn’t the best form of stretching for winding down at the end of the day; static stretching is.
Dynamic stretching can be thought of as yoga or similar practice. Think of it more as a workout in-and-of-itself. Dynamic stretching can have great benefit and complement your primary sport. It can increase balance and core strength, and help reduce fatigue in the latter stages of a race because your body is providing you with the structure and support you need to continue pressing your effort.
Probably the greatest benefit of stretching is that you’re moving the body in non-linear ways. The majority of sports we do typically operate in one plane and force us to move linearly. By moving the body in other directions, we better open it up and ensure we are flexible beyond the range of motion required for our preferred sports. In the end, this is the key and probably answers the question as to whether or not you should consider stretching a valuable addition to your day-to-day routine. That is, are you flexible beyond your required range of motion? If you are, then stretching may not hold any benefit for you other than helping you “work out the kinks.” If added flexibility is needed, then stretching is a great way to create that additional range of motion.