by Megan Zetter
To stretch or not to stretch has become quite the controversy in the sports and rehab arena. Some sources say stretching is good, but only at certain times and some say never stretch. Dynamic stretching is better than static. Don’t do it before you exercise. And then there is yoga, which is heavily based on stretching. Additionally, pilates touts that it lengthens muscles. So the million dollar question is, “Who is right?”. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, the answer lies somewhere in the mix of, do stretch, don’t stretch, do yoga, don’t, do, yes, no. I don’t know!! Lets shed some light on why muscles get tight and from there I think the answer, for you, will be more evident.
Why are muscles tight:
upregulated nervous stem
poor breathing pattern
creep and hysteresis
Did you notice lack of stretching is not on the list?
Fatigue: too much training, not enough rest or cross training. Couple that with an inadequate diet and poor sleep habits, and there you go — tight hamstrings, calves, low back … We cannot expect to perform at our best day after day. The tightness is due to the bodies inability to recover and in a sense, it’s begging for you to stop, to rest, to cross train, to take the repetitive action away from that particular muscle.
Injury: When you injure yourself the muscle/tissue that has been injured will eventually heal. However, that healing comes with a price. Our bodies are not mechanical machines. You cannot order new parts or add some oil and be good as new. The human body, while quite amazing and resilient, will never be 100% after injury. We never get a brand new of anything. OK, maybe hips and knees, but those don’t perform the same either. What happens after injury is a natural cycle of repair, but that repair, particularly as it relates to muscles, is what I liken to a patch on ripped jeans. The jeans function again, but they don’t have the same flexibility in the patched area, and if your sewing skills are like mine, that patch probably won’t last very long and eventually the jeans will continue to tear. (as a side note: the number one predictor of injury is previous injury). The cycle of injury and repair further tightens muscle via formation of scar tissue. Scar tissue is not very pliable, which leads to a less compliant/tight muscle.
Instability: This particular topic requires more attention than I will give it here, but in short, if you have instability somewhere in the body, the muscles will tighten to create stability. An analogy that I like is this: When you unknowingly step on some ice or any slippery surface your reflexive response is to tense up. In the face of instability we cannot help but tense up. If you have an unstable ankle, knee, core, etc., your body will reflexively tighten. And you will remain that way until you resolve the instability. Unfortunately, many people stretch the area that has become reflexively tight only to create further instability and increased muscular tension.
Upregulated nervous system: This is just a fancy term for too much stress. That stress can come in the form of an endless number of reasons. Family trouble, financial hardship, job promotion, training for a race, school, lack of sleep, poor nutrition. Nearly all things in life have an element of stress, but is that necessarily bad? Not always, but when not properly managed, your physical body pays for it. I think we can all relate to muscle tension in times of stress.
Poor breathing patterns: This is another topic that needs it’s own write up, but for the sake of this article I want to briefly address it because it’s so important in not only the management of stress, but in the efficiency of your running. Eighty percent of the population does not breathe properly. Who did that study, I don’t know, but from clinical experience I have to agree. Many people chest breathe, which decreases the amount of oxygen getting into the body (anxiety is strongly correlated to chest breathing) and it also creates a lot of muscular tension in the neck, shoulders and mid-back. Next time you have the opportunity to watch a baby sleep, you will see how we are supposed to breathe — with our bellies.
Creep, hysteresis and viscoelasticity: Honey is a viscous material. It resists shear flow and strain linearly when stress is applied to it. Elastic materials stretch and return to their original shape. Viscoelastic materials are a combination of viscous and elastic properties and they have a time-dependent strain. Our muscles, ligaments (hold bones together) and tendons (connect muscle to bone) are viscoelastic. Meaning if subjected to a particular strain long enough they will adapt to that stress. However, the new length, whether that be shortened or lengthened does not happen in 30 seconds, a typical amount of time one holds a stretch. Therefore our muscles will not change length with a short session of stretching. To make a lasting change in the length of a muscle takes at least 20 minutes. I don’t know of anyone who has the time to hold a hamstring stretch for 20 minutes. However, slouching all day, is a very effective way to stretch the muscles between the shoulder blades — which by the way, you don’t want to stretch. I would say that nearly no one needs to stretch the muscles in their back, but that is another discussion to be had.
Now that I have covered some of the reasons our muscles get tight. Lets discuss stretching. If you suffer from any of the above, which you do, stretching probably is not the answer. That said, I don’t think stretching is useless. It definitely has its place, but it is rarely the answer. If it was, no one would be tight because stretching is much easier than learning how to breathe properly or addressing the problems in your life that have you in a chronic state of stress.
So, should you stretch or not? If I have not made a clear case as to whether or not you should, it is because it is very individual. Just as your training plan is — there is no universal perfect plan. I would say that if your current stretching routine is working for you, keep at it. If you have not added stretching into your routine it may or may not be of benefit to you. Regardless if you stretch or not, addressing the potential reasons for your muscular tension is probably an area that requires some attention.