Most athletes lead busy lives and it is easy for little things, like stretching, to fall into the ‘not gonna happen’ pile. While many of our coaches will tell us to stretch it is common to experience confusion around when to fit this into a training plan. As athletes, we try to do everything right, and by ensuring you stretch at the correct time, you can maximise the benefit of this recovery tool and prevent issues down the track.
Stretching can be such a beneficial tool in recovery, but you must ensure you stretch at the right time or you could be causing yourself a lot more trouble than you think. By timing your stretching correctly, you can reduce the risk of injuries during training, alleviate post-training muscle soreness, and as a result, train harder and race faster. While some of you might think that stretching hurts, in fact, if you are experiencing pain during stretching this is feedback that you’re pushing the stretch too far. So read on and let us help you discover when it is best to stretch.
Stretching is commonly considered a recovery technique that increases muscle flexibility and reduces muscle soreness, and while it does play some role in recovery, the correct type of stretching can also play a role in a warm-up for activity. Unfortunately, the evidence supporting the role of stretching in injury prevention and athletic performance is unclear, due to mixed results and a lack of specific studies . However, while further research continues in this area, athletes of all levels continue to use a range of stretching techniques as part of their performance management.
Typically, there are two types of stretches you can easily complete as part of your warm-up or cool-down routine. Static stretching involves holding one position for a prolonged period. Dynamic stretching involves repeatedly moving through your joint’s available range of motion. Importantly, long-held static stretches should not be used prior to activity due to the subsequent reduction in muscular performance [1, 2]. This is where the applications of dynamic stretching is appropriate to allow a greater range of movement at joints while preventing this detrimental effect of long-held stretches.
In terms of injury prevention, it is important to consider that a long-term maintenance program is adhered to on a day to day basis, not just during a warm-up or cool-down . Performing a range of static stretches directly before exercise is unlikely to reduce injury prevalence and may lead to reduced performance as discussed above.
Dynamic stretching should be included in your warm-up to increase joint range of movement, and your focus should be specific to your body and your sport. As a triathlete, some leg swings to increase hip range of movement, arm rotations to loosen up your shoulders and thoracic rotation exercises may be most beneficial. Start these repetitive movements slowly and within a pain-free range, and as you get used to the movement you can push into the end range slightly more.
Static stretching should be included both as a post-exercise activity and throughout your week as part of a sustained injury prevention program . Static stretches should be held for at least 30 seconds, building up to 60 seconds over time, and should not cause discomfort. Gently ease into the stretching position and hold, at the point of ‘tension’ but not pain. If you feel your muscle relax during this period, which commonly occurs, you can ease slightly further into the stretch.
Once the time period is completed, or if any sudden pain or discomfort occurs, slowly ease out of the stretch. Each stretch should ideally be completed three times in a session to allow maximal, lasting results. And while more stretching will lead to greater flexibility and possible injury prevention, if you are able to fit in a round of stretching most days of the week, that should be enough! A quick google search for ‘static stretch of quadriceps’ or ‘stretch for upper arms’ will provide images of appropriate positions, which you can individualise for any restrictions you may have.
It is important to note that flexibility can be impeded by a range of factors. If it is due to reduced length of the musculotendinous unit, appropriate and consistent stretching should lead to improvement. However, if this does not occur over time this ‘tightness’ may be related to restriction of the neural system or the presence of muscular trigger points, both of which should be treated differently. In this case, consult your physiotherapist or similar health professional.
Remember that stretching should not cause pain, needs to be commenced gently and only progressed once comfortable, and should not occur only before or after exercise, but throughout the week as part of general injury prevention. Use dynamic stretching to loosen up your joints while warming-up for exercise, then utilise static stretching once exercise is completed.
So now that you’ve got all the information you need about effective stretching, grab a cup of coffee, write out a stretching plan for yourself, and most importantly, stick to it!
If you have any questions about which stretches to include in your training day, the alternatives such as foam rolling or any equipment you may need, comment below or, better yet, sign up to our Hub membership for access to our TriChicks stretching guides.
 McHugh, M. P., and Cosgrave, C. H. (2010). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine + Science in Sports.
 Kay, A. D., and Blazevich, A. J. (2012). Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.
 Brukner, P., and Kahn, K. (2007). Brukner & Kahn’s Clinical Sports Medicine (4th Ed).