When you were a kid, the concept of stretching likely seemed straightforward—every gym class started with a jog around the gym, followed by five minutes of simple, instructor-led stretches like bending over to touch your toes. Given that practically every student in America followed the same general routine, it makes sense that the structure carried over to adult competitions and activities—you may not have liked doing a preworkout or postworkout stretch (and you may have skipped it a time or two), but it seemed like a clear part of a standard exercise routine.
But as yoga, foam rolling, myofascial release, and stretching classes started making their way into mainstream fitness, the “simplicity” of stretching and the role that it plays in performance started to get muddied. More studies were performed that started changing the landscape of the knowledge surrounding the subject, and the resulting answers started complicating what the new research says versus what the general population does.
This may make you start asking yourself: When should you stretch? What type of stretching should you do? And most of all, if some stretching is good, is a lot of stretching better, or can you stretch too much?
The good news: Research has uncovered the answers to many of these questions, and the new information is still simple and easy to follow. That said, it may mean you have to change your approach to stretching to make sure you’re doing it in the safest, most effective way that will help you maintain your ideal range of motion without hurting your performance or your soft tissues.
Understanding range of motion, flexibility, and the role stretching plays
Before getting into the conversation about whether you can stretch too much, it’s important to understand what range of motion and flexibility mean, and how they are different.
Range of motion is simply how far a given joint is designed to move under ideal conditions. This is different for everyone because skeletal structures differ from one person to the next, including the placement of the joint, the deepness or shallowness of the joint, and the size and angle of the bones connecting to the joint. It can even vary due to the connection points and natural, genetic elasticity of your soft tissues (tendons, ligaments, and muscle) which work to control and limit range of motion. (Think about it: Your tendons, ligaments, and muscles are what work to keep your upper arm bone secure and in place within the highly unstable shoulder joint.)
Flexibility, on the other hand, is how far a given joint can comfortably move within its ideal range of motion. In other words, if your hips are designed to be able to move at a certain range of motion, are you actually able to do so, or are you limited due to factors affecting your flexibility? For example, do you have tightness, muscular imbalances, past injuries and scar tissue, or increased muscle or fat mass that are preventing you from moving at your own maximal range of motion?
The reason why flexibility is considered a key component of fitness isn’t so that everyone can be excessively bendy; rather, it’s to maintain an optimal range of motion that allows you to move comfortably and freely based on your own personal needs without pain or problem.
“The underlying principle of stretching is quite basic and boils down to two basic structures: joints and muscle. We are trying to protect them with flexibility, but not injure them with forceful disruption of muscle/collagen fiber,” explains M. Ramin Modabber, M.D., orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, and medical director and chief medical officer for the Amgen Tour of California. Understanding this goal of stretching should help you choose proper stretches and techniques without pushing yourself too far.
Is it possible to stretch too much by stretching too hard?
In short, yes, it is possible to simply stretch too much. And when we say “too much,” we mean, pushing yourself too far, past your current level of flexibility or your joint’s given range of motion.
Generally speaking, this happens when someone is actively working to improve flexibility at a given joint (say, to be able to perform splits or master a challenging yoga pose), and assumes that in order to do so, they need to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. This is simply untrue. Every expert will emphasize the need for stretching to be gentle and comfortable—it shouldn’t cause pain.
“Don’t force your body to move in any plane more than your body will allow. This is a relatively simple principle that needs to be followed,” emphasizes Matt Tanneberg, D.C., C.S.C.S., owner of Body Check Chiropractic & Sports Rehabilitation in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If your body is giving you resistance to any certain stretch, take a break from the stretching aspect and get on a foam roller or use a massage gun to loosen up the muscle first, then attempt the same stretch again. When people attempt to push their bodies past the point their body will allow, that creates a risk of injury.”
Can you stretch too often or for too long?
As long as you’re being mindful of the types of stretching you’re performing (like sticking to those dynamic movements before your workout), there’s really no reason you can’t stretch on a regular basis, or use a long stretching routine to help you loosen up after a tough workout. In fact, Tanneberg says you should do both. “Ideally, people should be stretching before and after each workout—dynamic stretching beforehand and static stretching afterward,” he says.
Adding a morning or evening stretch to your day, just to help you feel better, is unlikely to cause any problems either. “Frequent, gentle stretching is very unlikely to cause injury, and a person who is stretching regularly and paying attention to the response to stretching (for example, who has little to no pain later that day or the next day) will benefit from frequent stretching,” says Modabber, who goes on to make a clear analogy: “Think of a rubber band. A long, slow stretch that is maintained at a mid-level causes no catastrophic failure of the rubber band. That said, a forceful or progressive intensity stretch can cause the rubber band to break.”
If you let the rubber band analogy play out, you know you can use and reuse a rubber band for years without a problem, as long as you aren’t pushing it forcefully past its breaking point. Likewise, you can stretch your muscles frequently, or for longer periods of time, without risking injury, as long as you remain cognizant of how your stretching is affecting your muscles and joints, and you’re not experiencing pain or soreness following your routine.
To be clear, a little soreness from stretching is okay, especially if you’re starting a new stretching routine, but stretching shouldn’t cause extreme soreness. If it does, rest for a day or so before you do the same stretches, and make sure to keep poses gentle.
Should you avoid any specific types of stretching?
Long gone are the days when a pre-workout stretch performed on cold muscles was considered an “injury prevention” tool. “Older research in the ‘90s suggested that in short, stretching could be performed during a warmup procedure to reduce risk of injury. However, newer literature suggests that neither static nor dynamic stretching has a direct correlation in regards to injury prevention,” says Joshua Tebangin, P.T., D.P.T., at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy in Santa Monica, CaliforniaCA.
In fact, holding a static stretch (like bending over to touch your toes for 30 to 60 seconds) could actually hinder performance when it comes to exercises that require power, speed, or strength. “New research has shown that static stretching will actually deactivate the muscle for 10 to 15 minutes,” says Tanneberg. That means if you’re on your bike and you need to sprint to pass a competitor, you may not have the level of power you would typically have if you hadn’t fit in that pre-competition static stretch.
Tebangin confirms this potential downside. “The majority of studies have looked at vertical jump height in regards to power and its reduction before and after stretching. In regards to cycling, a reduction in power could result in a slower speed to acceleration either on a flat ground or uphill situation.”
That doesn’t mean you should skip stretching altogether, though. It just means the approach to pre and postworkout stretching should be a little different.
So then what’s the best approach to stretching before a ride?
When it comes to stretching out before you start a workout, your focus should be on a solid warmup, first and foremost. This typically includes a few minutes of light cardio, like walking, jogging, or cycling at a lower intensity, followed by a series of dynamic stretches that take your muscles through a full range of motion. “I prefer to recommend a light warmup to any muscle before stretching it, simply because as a muscle heats up with blood flow or ambient temperature, it becomes naturally more elastic, and thus less likely to be injured by stretching,” says Modabber.
As for which dynamic moves to do: “Try to mimic the motion you’re about to perform. If you’re doing a squat-related workout, do some bodyweight squats as a warmup,” says Tanneberg. This gets the working muscles and joints ready for a more challenging workout ahead while taking them through your full range of motion.
Considering the very specific movement pattern of cycling, you may be at a loss of how to perform active stretches before your routine. A slow cycling warmup is a good start, but then adding dynamic stretches that target your hamstrings is a good idea.
Tebangin suggests a seated dynamic hamstring stretch as one option. Try it by sitting on the ground with your right leg extended, your left foot placed against the inside of your right thigh, your left knee opened outward. Extend your arms overhead as you breathe in, and as you exhale, lean forward from your hips, stretching your arms toward your right foot. Hold for 1-2 seconds, and as you inhale, return to the upright position. Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Is anyone more at risk for stretching-related injuries?
Stretching-related injuries aren’t common, and when they do occur, it’s typically due to an accident, where someone accidentally pushes themselves too far. That said, certain individuals may be more prone to stretching-related injuries.
“Conditions like Ehlers-Danos or similar, where collagen fibers are inherently weaker, have higher incidence of joint instability and other issues related to the increase in elasticity of ligaments and tendons, and thus are more prone to injury from ‘overstretching,’” explains Modabber. “Similarly, if someone with a prior injury or surgery in a joint has secondary stiffness from the injury or surgery, this results in an increase in scar tissue in that area and scar tissue is much less flexible than native or uninjured tissue. Forceful stretching could result in tearing of scar tissue as opposed to what would be preferred as a gentle, progressive stretching of tissues.”
The bottom line on overstretching: listen to your body and do what feels right
As with most physical activity, staying attuned to your own body is important when it comes to stretching, and Modabber points out that cyclists have some specific needs that may need to stay at the forefront of the mind when incorporating stretching into a routine. “Recognize that it is a unique sport in that a nearly fixed position is maintained for the vast majority of the activity—there is very little lateral movement, the neck and back experience prolonged strain, the hip flexors tighten for prolonged periods of sitting and pedaling in the saddle,” he says. “Every single muscle group from the neck down will benefit from stretching, with special attention to the spine, abdominal muscles, hip flexors, hamstrings, and calves.”
He suggests that in addition to a good warmup and a series of preworkout dynamic stretches, you should pay attention to your muscular tension level as you ride. Short, gentle, dynamic stretches performed mid-workout and again afterward can help you stay loose and maintain good form for a better overall ride.
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