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Recovery (part 3): Stretching

Stretching has been tied to performance since the very beginning and currently, there is some evidence to suggest that there are small recovery benefits to be gained from post-exercise stretching.

For this instalment, we’ll be looking at some of the current evidence on stretching for recovery. Stretching to increase flexibility or as part of a warm-up will be covered in more detail another time.



The most common reasons for post-exercise stretching are to reduce soreness, help recovery and to regain pre-training flexibility, and while stretching is still common practice, much of the initial supporting theory has been debunked. 

Type

There are many types of stretching but the two categories most often subscribed to for recovery are static and dynamic. 

Static:(Self-administered, in place/no movement) 

Passive:(Partner administered) 

Dynamic:Active (movement based) 

Ballistic: Active / fast bouncy actions at end range)


Effects on Muscle Soreness 

A dig through the current literature will show that while there is some research suggesting positive results from post-exercise stretching on muscle soreness, much of it is low quality. While there is also widespread anecdotal observation of reduced muscle soreness with post-exercise stretching, there appears to be very little or no effect on muscle soreness reflected in the current body of evidence.


Blood Flow 

Static stretching appears to temporarily constrict the blood vessels through compression reducing blood flow, oxygenation and red blood cell delivery to the muscle. Shortly after the applied stretch, however, there appears to be a sudden and enhanced surge of blood flow greater than in pre-stretch conditions. This short-lived shunting effect may assist the recovery process through enhanced nutrient delivery and waste removal although this has not been firmly established in the literature.


Enhanced Parasympathetic Activity 

The PSNS is the branch of the Autonomic Nervous System associated with a ”rest and digest” response. Essentially, it slows the system down, reduces neural excitability and helps facilitate the recovery and adaptation process.
Static stretching has been shown to influence PSNS modulation, acutely (same day) and across several weeks after a consistent application over 28 days. This was demonstrated by positive changes to heart rate variability, which in recent times has become a popular metric for measuring ANS status and training readiness. 


Flexibility 

More research in recent times has pointed to static stretching leading to an improved stretch tolerance, rather than increased tissue flexibility. Some research has also suggested that improvements in flexibility may occur due to a temporary decrease in neural excitability or resting tone as a result of static stretching. Some newer evidence suggests that flexibility improvements may also be the result of change to the mechanical properties of the muscle-tendon unit through stretching.

In summary: 
. Static stretching has little to no effect on post-exercise muscle soreness

. Following post-exercise static stretching, a ‘shunting’ effect occurs resulting in a temporary increase in blood flow and waste removal.

. Static stretching promotes relaxation by enhancing PSNS activity.

. Static stretching creates short-term improvements in flexibility, and reduced neural drive.

While it appears that there are a few mechanisms through which static stretching can influence recovery, these changes are not meaningful enough to warrant using static stretching as a stand-alone, or primary method of recovery. 


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