The instinct we all have when something in our body is uncomfortable is to stretch it out. It’s even the most commonly suggested first step in treating muscular pain on the internet (for very old and unproven reasons). Just google “Achilles Tendinitis self help” and you’ll be inundated with advice to stretch out your calf muscles. But should you always stretch if something hurts? Here are the dos and Don’ts of stretching.
Do stretch after being still for a long time: Being still promotes stagnancy in the tissues of your body. Stretching can help to get things moving again and can often relieve the pain associated with being still.
Do stretch for stress relief: Stretching has been shown to be very effective at relieving stress. This is likely because it gives you time to slow down and breathe. Stretching also removes tension in your muscles which makes you feel more at ease too.
Do stretch after exercise: Having a short stretch out after exercise helps to relax tense muscles. It is recommended to do short stretches of around 15-20 seconds per muscle.
Don’t stretch before exercise: Stretching before exercise has been shown to weaken muscles by up to 60%. This has been known since the 1970s but has only become common knowledge in the last few years. It is best to do a dynamic warm up for your muscles before exercise. We can show you how to do this for your specific needs.
Don’t stretch if something hurts: Stretching tissues that hurt or feel excessively tight usually irritates the problem further. When tissues become damaged the muscles associated or close to the area will naturally splint to protect the damage. Stretching takes away this protective mechanism and pulls on the damaged tissue, further inflaming it. It is best not to stretch and seek advice as to what is the best course of action to take.
Don’t over stretch: Too much stretching of a muscle weakens them and damages the tendons, making them degenerate. Much like the problem we just discussed, this degenerative damage to the tendon causes muscle splinting and ironically makes you want to stretch more, unwittingly perpetuating the cycle. Clients I’ve had that overstretch often do so because they are not improving on their range of motion in a particular muscle. It is because of this irritation and splinting effect that they aren’t improving in the first place, so stretching more only makes the problem last longer.
Don’t feel a nice stretch sensation: When it comes to the sensation of stretching it should feel quite nice. A gentle pulling sensation should be felt in the belly of the muscle you’re stretching. If the stretch sensation feels slightly nauseating then you are likely stretching a nerve not a muscle, which is very common. You’ll also find that regardless of how often you stretch you won’t improve your range. Nerves don’t like to be stretched, so avoid any sensation that is not in the belly of the target muscle and/or feels mildly sickening to hold and if you aren’t improving range then there is a reason for this that stretching won’t fix.
The Final Stretch
So the simple rule of thumb that I use is this. When you are trying to improve your flexibility, relax or counteract stagnancy in your day then stretching is a great tool to use. But if you feel pain in any way, seem to be getting tighter even when stretching daily or regular stretching doesn’t improve range of motion then you need another solution.
Why not get in touch to see how we can help you reach your mobility goals.