*Originally written for the Boulder Triathlon Club as part of their monthly newsletter
Over the past few years, research has shown the adverse effects of static stretching prior to working out. We grew up thinking and being told flexibility was a good thing, and the best way to attain that was by putting our bodies through a stretching routine before we exercised. However, flexibility is relative to your biomechanics and activity preference. If you were a gymnast or kung fu master, you would rely heavily on having flexible and pliable tissue to torque your body in a wide variety of positions. However, as endurance athletes, we need to have some tension through our tissue to create joint stability, as well as elastic momentum to propel us forward (like the recoil of a stretched rubberband). Too much or imbalanced tension is obviously an issue that can create strain on the muscle/tendon/ligament, but too little tension or too much flexibility can create instability of the joint.
Now, where does static stretching fall into the realm of proper joint mobility and right amount of flexibility without compromising the stability? Personally, I think in most situations you can do without static stretching as it tends to fatigue the tissue. But, if you feel the need to incorporate some aspect of this component into your training program, the best time would be after your easy sessions. The problem with static stretching (meaning holding a stretch for a period of 30seconds to a minute) is that it can reduce eccentric (lengthening) strength and peak force of the muscles for up to 60 minutes following the stretch; you need some tension in your muscles to optimize the elastic component of the tissue during the workout, and by placing a static stretch on tissue that is not already engaged or prepared for that component, the body’s muscle spindles will reflexively activate to resist the stretch. So, the body can actually become tighter as a protective mechanism when static stretching is performed. Therefore easier effort days would be, in my opinion, the only time to do some sort of static stretching, following your workout, as these days recovery and flexibility should be the goal, not muscle tension for performance optimization. Prior to workouts (regardless of intensity and duration) and before/after harder and longer effort days, a dynamic routine should be implemented to properly engage and activate the tissue while minimizing the effect the stretch reflex can have.
What do I mean by a dynamic warm-up? I typically recommend a series of lunges called the lunge matrix (from Coach Jay Johnson, developed by physical therapist Gary Gray) followed by a series of leg swings prior to any exercise. A lunge, although inherently a strength exercise, is a terrific stimulus to activate all the muscle of the leg prior to working out. Additionally, drills such as skipping, bounding, body squats, side walking, backwards walking/running, mountain climbers, and karaokes are all examples of dynamic exercises to get the legs prepared for the demands of your workouts.