It’s one of the old adages of fitness — stretch, stretch, stretch! We’ve all likely been told by a coach, gym teacher or fitness buddy at some point that stretching is important. But what is it about stretching that makes it so important? Do we really need to do it every time we exercise? Here are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to include a few minutes of stretching as part of your workout routine.
1. Improved athletic performance
Studies on stretching have been mixed and more research is needed. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, stretching can help to increase your flexibility and, as a result, improve the range of motion of your joints. The thinking goes that, by helping your joints to move through their complete range of motion, you’re also helping your muscles to move more effectively. And this, in turn, could help to improve your athletic performance. It would seem to make sense, then, that stretching before a jog, for example, could help you to run more efficiently. The greater your range of motion, the more force you’ll be able to put into exercising, which means running faster, jumping higher and the like.
2. Avoiding injuries
As mentioned above, stretching can help your joints to move through their full range of motion. Not only does this improve the effectiveness with which your muscles work, it also helps to avoid injury. While research on stretching and injury prevention has been mixed, there have been studies that suggest that both too little and too much flexibility can be associated with injury. So if you’re someone who is not particularly flexible, stretching regularly to improve your flexibility could potentially help you to dodge injuries.
3. Stretching the right muscles
Because different sports and athletic activities use different muscles, many believe that stretching beforehand can help you to improve your flexibility in the relevant muscles and joints. A hilly jogging course, for example, will work your quadriceps, so some believe that stretching them beforehand can ward off injuries to that particular muscle group.
4. Improved posture
Again, the research here is incomplete. But many believe that stretching can help to improve your posture. It’s thought that stretching the muscles of the lower back, chest and shoulders can help you keep proper alignment. This can be particularly important if you’re going to be doing exercises like bicep curls, for example. It can also be beneficial to do during the work day since so many of us spend long hours hunched over computers.
5. Better blood flow
Stretching, many believe, can improve blood flow to your muscles. This can have a range of benefits, including the potential for increased stamina during your workout. Many athletes believe that stretching can delay the onset of muscle fatigue during a workout by carrying oxygen to your muscles in your bloodstream (though more research is needed). This could increase your athletic stamina and endurance, and could be particularly helpful for long-distance running, biking or swimming.
6. Improved coordination
It is thought by many that stretching can help to improve coordination because it helps your joints achieve a larger range of motion. And this, of course, can be beneficial to your performance during a workout or athletic competition.
7. Getting your head in the game
Aside from the potential physical benefits of stretching, many people like to do it before a workout because it gives them a moment to calm their minds and prepare. This is particularly true if you’re competing in an athletic activity. If you’re about to race in a 5k, for example, taking a few minutes to stretch can help you to tune out all of the distractions around you and start to focus on the competition. You’ve probably heard it said that mental preparedness is practically as important a factor to an athlete’s success as physical preparedness — and stretching can help athletes achieve that.
As always, you should pay attention to how your body feels during stretching. Yes, there is likely to be a little tightness when you start, but if this progresses to actual pain, stop.
Moreover, while many believe that stretching before a workout is the most beneficial, there is another school of thought that suggests that stretching is best done after you’ve been exercising for a short period. That way, because your muscles are already warmed up, you’re less likely to stretch them too far and injure yourself. Because the research here is mixed, we suggest trying each option with an awareness of how your body feels. While stretching after or in the middle of a workout may feel best to some people, stretching beforehand might be better for you, and at the end of the day, that’s what is important.
— Sarah Cooke