Are you a cyclist, triathlete, and/or runner who is frequently getting injured? Perhaps your stretching routine is causing you more harm then good. We play devil’s advocate and look at how stretching is often not the right solution to most problems.
Let’s start off with the question, “Do I need to be stretching?” Simply put, our answer is no. The primary reason is because the vast majority of athletes often put other structures at risk when stretching. When it comes to the act of stretching, there are a lot of assumptions that have been embraced without much evidence of benefit. For example, many have argued that stretching reduces the likelihood of injury, however, scientific literature fails to support this notion. Stretching has been touted as a very simple way for the athlete and non athlete alike to “self-treat” nearly any and all orthopaedic problems. This is simply not the case and here are 5 reasons why stretching may be causing you collateral damage.
1. Stretching does not change the muscle’s resting length
The statement that stretching elongates the muscles is likely one of the biggest assumptions that sadly has become widely accepted as true. Not only is this assumption false, it’s a very dangerous one to make. Muscles are extensible, meaning they have a keen ability to elongate then return to their normal resting position. Stretching does not change the resting length, it simply trains the nervous system to allow more elongation to occur. A second key component to stretching is the sensation of stretch. The sensation of stretch is the nervous system’s protective mechanism to control elongation and protect the tissues. This sensation is critical to understand and must be handled with care. The resting length is the muscle’s “home base” and a restricted “home base” is where problems arise from.
2. The sensation of “tight” is rarely coming from short muscles.
The sensation of a “tight muscle” is often simply an inflamed muscle. This inflammation can be any of hundreds of reasons, and for most of them, the solution is not forcing them to become longer. The reality is the sensation of tightness doesn’t confirm short. In many cases, the problem is just the opposite. The perception of tightness could actually be the result of muscles that are too “stretched” out and are working hard at their outer range of motion. In this scenario, if you followed the standardized treatment of stretching, you would be causing more damage and prolonging the injury.
3. You are assuming joint mobility and neural mobility are normal… and usually they are not.
Anytime an athlete is experiencing a sensation of muscle tightness, the first step taken should be assessing their joint mobility. Most of the time the root of the problem lies with joint mobility. For example, a common sensation cyclists experience is tightness in the hip flexors. Is this coming from hip flexors that are actually too tight or is a hypo-mobile joint restricting hip extension? Take it even a step farther, is the hip joint hyper-mobile and the hip flexors have increased tension in an effort to produce joint stability? The fact is very rarely is a tight hip flexor sensation coming from a tight hip flexor! To find the answer differential diagnosis is key to finding a solution and in both these situations, stretching is not the answer!
This idea of differential diagnosis must then be taken one step further. In the example of restricted hip extension, once the hip joint has been ruled out, we still aren’t done. This only confirms the problem to be muscular, but fails to tell us which muscles are actually limiting extension range. Is it the one-joint hip flexor Iliacus, or the two-joint Rectus Femoris, or to complicate things even further is it the TFL, IT band, or the nervous system?
This “tight” feeling could be coming from the nervous system. However, due to its amazing complexity, it is often overlooked when talking about stretching. We need to respect the fact that manipulating the nervous system alone can yield massive improvement in muscle elongation abilities. In the presence of pain and pathology, extra care most certainly is warranted. However, even in a non-injury state, the nervous system must be evaluated effectively in order to understand its limitations and nature of response.
4. If you feel your IT Band in your stretch you may be doing harm to something else.
Let’s get right to the point; energy-storing fascias, like the ITB (Iliotibial Band) will not provide you with a feeling of being stretched unless they are inflamed. This means that the silly ITB stretch you are doing where you feel a good stretch by your hip, is your hip being stretched, not your ITB. The problem now that arises is you are stretching a completely different structure and potentially lengthening something that doesn’t need to be lengthened. This then can create another injury to compound the original problem around your ITB.
5. By being proactive, you may be causing collateral damage.
The concept of “give and restriction” is an easy to understand principle that allows us to better understand how stretching can lead to problems in neighboring structures. For example, a quad muscle that is too tight (restriction) can cause increased movement (give) and eventually pain in an adjacent structure.
The subject is performing the proper technique for stretching the quad. In Figure A, the small lumbar curvature is maintained in a neutral position (meaning not flexed or extended) and the pelvis is level (blue lines). The stance leg is pointed straight ahead and the femurs of both legs are perfectly parallel. The tight Rectus Femoris is restricting hip extension by 10-15° (as seen by the red lines).
In Figure B, the hip angle has improved but only due to changes in lumbar and pelvic extension. An effective stretching program will eliminate all possible substitutions, or “gives,” while moving the origin and insertion of the target muscle away from one another.
This same process can be seen in this example of the hamstrings. The subject has positioned the hamstring to its limitation (mild stretch) while keeping the pelvis and spine maintained in a neutral position.
Proper position involves keeping the stretch leg straight out in front, the stance leg pointed straight ahead with no trunk rotation. In the next image, the hip angle is identical to the prior image although it provides the viewer with a perception of increased range of motion. This perceived improvement has occurred due to flexion of the entire spinal system combined with trunk and pelvic rotation, neither of which is good for your spine and eliminates any chances of improvement in hamstring flexibility. By stopping or controlling the “gives” you are reducing the potential for collateral damage.
So, should you be stretching?
Stretching can be a very powerful modality and should be treated with caution. It is very difficult to perform correctly and safely. With this in mind, most do more harm than good with their stretching routine. The best advice we can give is link up with a professional (coach or trainer) who can help you set a safe yet effective strengthening and mobility program. In the meantime, discontinue stretching without direction as it can lead to limited progress and frustrating injuries, and look at other opportunities to elongate the muscle. Try to find a good massage therapist who can feel for any tight areas and address those areas specifically, or use a foam roller to loosen muscles without putting them on a stretch.
by Chad S Brenzikofer, Donna Phelan, & Tom Danielson, Cinch Cycling Coaches