A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Stretching

A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Stretching

To stretch or not to stretch? It can be time consuming and annoying, so it’s worth asking, is stretching actually doing anything to improve your mobility?

Stretching can be extremely useful for athletes when there is reason to do so. But, we don’t need much flexibility to run, bike, or swim. Determining if you have a true mobility limitation will establish the need for a flexibility routine. Poor mobility can be caused by a multitude of different factors including:

  1.     Joint stiffness
  2.     Tissue length
  3.     Tissue mobility
  4.     Impaired proprioception requiring a neuromuscular reset

Impaired mobility can weaken performance in a few ways. If an athlete has a mobility limitation that prevents them from accessing the necessary range of motion for the sport, then the athlete may compensate by using different movement patterns, recruiting other muscles and concurrently risking overall joint health and overstressing the tissue.

Why focus on tissue mobility?

Addressing these limitations is important because when a tissue is injured, the fibers that make up the structure are no longer aligned in parallel. When this happens, the body is unable to absorb the load that is being applied with training. Smooth, mobile tissue functions optimally and accepts the athlete’s training load. Proper mobility will result in proper movement and reduce the risk of injury.

Now, the caveat to it all is determining if your tissue is truly not long enough or if there is a tissue mobility issue (ie: trigger point) instead. Just because a muscle may feel tight does not mean the tightness is uniform throughout the entire muscle. As endurance athletes, we continuously break down our bodies which causes adhesions in our muscles from excessive scarring. These adhesions are what we commonly identify as “trigger points,” “kinks,” or “knots” along the muscle. If there is a kink in your muscle, which is way more likely in the athlete than tightness throughout the length of the tissue, you can release the kink with soft tissue work rather than stretching it. 

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The Cost of Stretching

Most times we don’t need longer tissue, rather we need smoother tissue. One downside to stretching is the amount of time it takes to see benefits. Research shows it takes three minutes per day of stretching, four to six times weekly, for at least ten weeks before the length of the tissue is changed. Whereas tissue mobilization techniques can be performed for three minutes a day for only two to three weeks before there is a noticeable change in the tissue. 

The Benefits of Stretching

Now understand, not all stretching is bad and I’m not arguing that you should never stretch. If you do have a tissue length limitation that prevents you from fully completing the necessary range of motion for your sport, then stretching is appropriate. In fact, 80% of runners will benefit from a hip flexor stretch. If you do need to stretch, you should always stretch after a training session.

There are benefits to addressing poor flexibility in order to maintain and improve the longevity of a joint. From a joint’s perspective, when the axis around the joint is able to achieve its full motion the muscles around the joint work in unison to apply equal forces around the joint. If the joint is unable to achieve its proper mobility, joint health can suffer by changing the axis of the joint. This is one of the greatest benefits of stretching.

Alternatives to the Traditional Stretching Routine

If you prefer a pre-run routine, try a dynamic warm-up. This can include a light jog with form-focused drills such as the Banded Hip Drive, Kneeling Deadlift or the Twisted Warrior.

You can also try skipping and running backward or other from-focused movements such a jumps (forward and lateral hops over a stick, a line on the track, etc.) These dynamic movements change the perception of the muscle rather than the length; causing the individual to feel looser and more prepared to run.

So the next time you prepare to stretch, think about what your body really needs. Remember, tissue mobilization does increase tissue length. Not only can we regain the appropriate length of tissue in a fraction of the time, this smooth tissue functions more optimally than unnecessarily lengthened tissue. Smooth, supple tissue accepts the loads we place on it. Sometimes our bodies just need a little help recovering and realigning the tissue to its optimal state so we can get the most out of our sport.

Caitlin Glenn Sapp

Dr. Caitlin Glenn Sapp is the founder of Crew Racing and Rehab, a performance coaching and physical therapy company. She holds her Doctorate of Physical Therapy as well as a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science. She also holds certifications as a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and American College of Sports Medicine Personal Trainer. Dr. Sapp is a seven-time Ironman finisher, which includes the Ironman World Championships, and is a multiple-time USA Triathlon All-American. She takes great interest in educating the industry, from athletes to coaches, on how to stay injury-free while performing at a high level. For more, visit Crewracing.org or email Caitlin at caitlin@crewracing.org.