Why a Stretching Routine is Critical to the High Performance Athlete
Stretching is a topic that has been discussed in the strength and conditioning community for about as long as the industry has existed. However, with all the discussion there are still few actionable conclusions, less being made readily available to athletes. Stretching is defined as straightening or extending one's body or a part of their body to its full length. This differs from a lot of the buzzwords in the strength and conditioning community such as mobility, manipulations, and active release therapy. Although, these are all ways to increase overall range of motion in the body they differ from stretching in many regards. Stretching is simply placing a muscle or muscle group on stretch, aiming to increase its "length" (more on this later). There are many different forms that all fall into the category of stretching. Some of these include passive, active, ballistic, and PNF just to name a few. However, they all aim to accomplish the same basic goal, and thus they are all largely effective to add into an athlete's stretching routine.
Decreasing Recovery Time
The first and most important reason that one should stretch is that it decreases an athlete's recovery time. Charlie Francais, trainer of great sprinter Ben Johnson, showed in his work that a quality therapy routine could increase an athletes central nervous system (CNS) workload by up to 15%. This allows athletes to be placed under more stress and recover from that stress, thus resulting in larger adaptations and higher sports performance.
Stretching is about half of the therapy model that Charlie Francais described. In this model he had is athlete's partner stretch or PNF stretch after high CNS workload days. Some examples of high CNS days are sprinting days, high velocity throwing days, or heavy days in the weight room. He found that when muscles are placed under a lot of CNS stress, the body's natural response is to tighten the muscles in an attempt to protect itself. It can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours before an athlete's muscles return to their normal length. increasing the amount of time needed by the athlete to recover between workouts. But Francais found a way to combat this by prescribing a stretching routine to this athletes immediately following their workouts. The stretching routine helped return the athlete's muscles to normal length in a shorter amount of time, resulting in a decreased recovery window by up to 24 hours. There as also been research showing that stretching could reduce muscle soreness in days following workouts and to restore range of motion to athletes facing muscle soreness.
The second reason that stretching is critical in an athlete's routine is that it promotes sleep. As we know sleep is paramount to an athlete's on field success, as well as keeping them healthy on a daily basis. There have been many studies that show yoga and meditation practices improve sleep. Outside of the obvious benefits of stretching such as releasing muscle tension. Another benefit of stretching is that it allows an athlete to decompress and focus on the stretch and breathing. This puts athletes in a parasympathetic state, which is ideal for receiving a good night's sleep. A nightly stretching routine does not need to last more than 10 to 15 minutes. It should include stretches from the neck all the way down to the calves and feet. Research has also shown that having a nightly routine is critical to optimal sleep. When the body has a routine in place it is better at preparing for what is to come next. Such as when an athlete has a stretching routine that they complete on a nightly basis, his or her body knows that it needs to be preparing to go to sleep. Many of the top athletes in professional sports have a nightly routine that includes stretching. This ensures their body is prepared to get a quality nights sleep, and wake up rested to attack the next day's training.
The third and final reason that stretching is critical to an athlete's performance is that it improves flexibility. While research has shown that static stretching does not actually permanently increase the length of the muscle being stretched, it does allow that muscle to move through a larger range pain free. This is because when an athlete stretches it is training the nervous system to allow the muscle to lengthen to longer and longer lengths. This is a topic for another blog, but the point remains the same, that stretching allows muscles to lengthen to a longer state than previously achieved. In doing this athletes can pull into deeper positions in their sport. Such as a javelin thrower creating more lay back in their arm when throwing a javelin. This allows there to be more space and time for an athlete to "pull" on the javelin allowing them to produce more force.
Additionally, more flexibility allows an athlete to better avoid injury on the field. Because an athlete's muscles are able to handle larger ranges of motion in a healthy manner. Certain positions that an athlete may be forced into on the field will not be of concern because the athlete can handle this position while staying healthy.
The application of stretching is a very simple yet effective way to increase athletic performance. Here at Peak Performance we prescribe a 10-15 minute stretching routine for our athletes on their high CNS days, as well as a nightly stretching routine. We have seen great results from this implementation and would recommend the same for any athlete looking to compete at the highest level. If there are any follow up questions be sure to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or sign up with us today by clicking the link below to start your journey to reaching your athletic potential.
*Peak Performance is not a medical practice, the recommendations in this article should not be taken as a treatment to any condition or illness. As always we recommend meeting with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise regimen.