Jena Walther, MS,CSCS
Performance Coach - RU Sports Performance Center
Among the various aspects of training (cardio, strength, power, etc.), flexibility may be the most controversial. Many years ago, pulling your arm across your chest and your heel to your butt for 20-30 seconds was considered a great way to conclude a pre-race warm-up. Current research suggests that this type of stretching may not only be suboptimal, but can actually hinder performance. However, the conflicting evidence (particularly from the media) can easily confuse coaches and athletes. If you are unsure about how to stretch and when, keep reading!
In both static and dynamic stretching, the purpose is to take the muscles through greater than normal ROM. Static means that the stretch is being held and the muscles are at a constant length (e.g. the standard quad stretch). Dynamic implies that the muscles and joints are moving as you stretch (e.g. a body squat). During a dynamic stretch, we are steadily loading (increasing length) and unloading (shortening) the muscles across multiple joints. This method assists with taking joints through a greater than normal ROM while also warming up the mind-muscle connection.
So which is better, dynamic or static? It’s important to look at the physiology of movement when trying to determine the appropriate stretching strategy. We know that muscles act like rubber bands, keeping joints together, aligning joints for movement, and propelling limbs through three-dimensional space at varying speeds. We also know that the longer that rubber band stretches (to a point), the further it will go, supporting the idea that we should definitely stretch before training or racing. It is also important to note that neural components in the muscle are ever monitoring tension, and reporting back to the central nervous system. So your stretching strategy should also warm-up the nervous system in a way that prepares the body for how it is about to move.
Based on how the muscle functions, it looks like a good pre-race or pre-workout strategy would include incorporating dynamic flexibility exercises in all three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, transverse) over static because not only will they take joints through a greater than normal ROM, but they will also properly stimulate the nervous system. Acute, static stretching might also decrease explosiveness, which is another reason to keep it out of your pre-race routine. However, static stretching is still requisite in a comprehensive flexibility program. So, save the static stretching for after your race or workout.
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