Thoughts on Stretching

This is written by NRG Athlete Trevor Clark

Stop stretching right now and read this first. Stretching is one of the things I have always done and have always thought that it must be good for me. I thought that stretching was good for things such as faster recovery, injury prevention, and increased flexibility, meaning more aggressive bike fit and over all improved performance in the long run.

First off, lets take a look at pre-exercise static stretching and how it helps, or does not help, with strength, power, endurance and explosive muscular performance. Many studies have been completed that show that static stretching before workouts decreases your strength, power, endurance and explosive muscular performance. Stretching decreases performance by negatively impacting the visco-elastic properties of muscle. Stretching changes, the visco-elastic properties of the muscle-tendon unit by decreasing its stiffness. In short, a stiffer muscle can create more force by capitalizing on the passive force generation potential of muscle. Many studies have also found the same decreases in performance through similar mechanisms. As an example of how pre-exercise static stretching reduces performance, in both cycling and running it will always make you slower or force you to work harder to maintain the same pace. Meaning pre-exercise static stretching will not only make you slower it will also increase the energy expenditure of the exercise. This is what I call a loose-loose. Not only are you slower but you are having to put out more energy to go slower.  Now let’s jump into dynamic stretching. The studies show that dynamic stretching does not lower power strength or over all speed, however, it does show us that energy consumption is still higher than without any stretching before hand. Yes, it does not make you slower, but it takes more energy consumption while doing your workout. As a result of these finding for dynamic stretching makes your over all energy expenditure higher.

I know what your thinking “yeah but I don’t stretch so I can get faster, I stretch so I recover faster and stay injury-free”, so let’s look at stretching to help with recovering faster first. There was a study done that had 3 groups of people, one group did not stretch, the second group stretched, and the third group stretched only the left side of their body. The findings of this study indicate that stretching does not help, in any way, to reduce muscle soreness acutely or chronically. There are many studies like this one also showing us that stretching does not help in any ways with muscle soreness (DOMS) Therefore, we can conclude that stretching does not help with faster recovery. There is no point in stretching before or after your workout to help with muscle soreness/recovery. Now moving on to the second argument, that you use stretching to stay injury-free, so let’s jump right into that. In a similar study to one that I previously mentioned in this paragraph, participants were divided into 3 groups, the first group that did not stretch, the second group that stretched and the third group that only stretched the left side. In all cases it shows us that stretching does not help one stay injury-free, so there is no point to doing it. As a Secondary finding, the study found preliminary evidence that static stretching may have a positive effect on preventing musculotendinous injuries. However, this finding only applies for sports like football, that involve high-impact events. I guess you could say the same for biking if you crush a lot but even the research for this is far from conclusive. As for sports where overuse injuries make up the majority of sport related injuries, stretching does not help at all.

Now putting that all aside stretching must help with being more flexible, therefore, allowing you to get into a more aggressive aerodynamics position. Sadly, there is not a lot of research on this specific aspect but what is out there shows us that flexibility does not normally limit the cyclist from cycling in a more aerodynamic position with a small torso angle. This is because for most athlete’s flexibility was sufficient to allow for aerodynamic positions. However, despite the aforementioned studies there is just not enough research on the relationship between flexibility and bike fit right now. There is also no correlation with lower back pain and lower back flexibility or over all flexibility. A study on hamstring extensibility comparing road cyclists with mountain bikers and non-cyclists demonstrated that road cyclists have the significantly greater hamstring muscles extensibility. Does this mean that road cyclists need to be more flexible to get into more aerodynamic position? No this is a classic example of correlation does not imply causation.

So, what can we conclude from all of this? Never stretch before workouts or races. This will always end up with you being slower. As for stretching after workouts or races, I say if you like to stretch after runs, go for it. If you do not like stretching, don’t stretch, you’re not missing out on anything. As for stretching for injury prevention, there really is no leg to stand on, the evidence doesn’t show any benefit. As for stretching to allow for a better bike fit, there is not enough research done on this to form a conclusion, however, the research complete to-date shows us that stretching is not helping you. Even after reading all of these studies I am still hard pressed to tell you never to stretch again.

Studies below