Jan 2014 18

Good stretch, bad stretch (2) - stretching after sport

By: Dave Wheeler

In a previous blog post I talked about stretching before exercise, which is all about being flexible enough to do your sport.

In this post we’ll look at stretching after sport: which is a whole different ball game.


Injury and un-stretched muscles -  a true-life story

“Martin” was in his early 40’s and had taken up cycling 6 months ago; he’d bought a decent bike and was now riding 60 miles a week.

One weekend, yobs had thrown some stones at his sitting room window. Adrenaline kicked in and Martin leapt from his chair for the front door; as he started down the path, he felt like he’d been shot in his calf muscle.

When he called me,  I recommended that he waited 48 hours and RICE his injury before coming to see me.

It turned out that Martin had well developed muscle over a limited area in each calf muscle. The more he’d ridden, the more that muscle had developed. But he’d never stretched after a ride. The result? He’d become muscle-bound in his calves – or to use the technical term, his muscles were hypertonic, and couldn’t stretch beyond the limited range that he used them in cycling.

When the adrenaline kicked in, he powered up from the chair and forcibly stretched the muscles beyond where they could go – and ripped them in the process, causing a muscle strain, or tear.

Treating Martin involved remedial massage to help the repair of the damaged tissue, giving him assisted stretching, and training him in proper stretching to avoid the problem coming back.


Why stretch after exercise?

The benefits of stretching are pretty well known:

  • It can help avoid injury (injuries like Martin’s, above)
  • It can help lessen DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness – the muscle ache that you feel 24 hours or so after hard exercise)
  • It can improve your flexibility and therefore your performance in your sport.


After exercise, your muscles are fully warmed up and at their most elastic, so the range that you can safely stretch them will be optimal.

But it’s not just a case of a quick 10 second stretch – that’ll actually do more harm than good. To understand why, we need a bit of physiology.


The stretch reflex

Within each muscle fibre are organs called muscle spindles  which send back information to the central nervous system about how contracted the muscle currently is.  When the muscle fibre is stretched, the muscle spindle sends a message to the central nervous system, effectively saying “I’m being stretched, what shall I do?”

The central nervous system responds with an urgent “resist!” message which the muscle spindle carries out by contracting the muscle to resist the stretch.  This is to stop the body being damaged by forces which might otherwise stretch the muscle / joint to breaking point.

Yep, you read that right: when a muscle is stretched, its reflex reaction is actually to contract.  This is called the stretch reflex (i.e. it’s a reflex against stretching).

If you’re interested, this reflex is processed within the spinal column, not all the way up in the brain, so the entire exchange of message takes only 1-2 milliseconds.

It’s only after about 9 or 10 seconds of a stretch being maintained that the messages between the muscles and the spinal cord calm down.  It’s as if the central nervous system, after about 10 seconds says, “Oh, I see, you mean you really do want to stretch.” 

At this point it sends a message to the muscle spindle telling it to relax and stretch.  To which the muscle’s reply is , “OK!”

So your muscle only starts to relax after 10 seconds, meaning that a 20 second stretch is actually stretching for only 10 seconds. When you’re stretching after exercise, make sure then that you hold any stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds!


Sports massage and stretching

Obviously I’d say it, but the combination of good stretching technique and regular sports massage will help you stay fit and healthy for your sport. Sports massage can help identify and nip any problems in the bud. It’s about reducing the risk of injury so that you can keep exercising.

As always, if you think I can help then give me a call.