In line at the start of a race, you often see runners going through a myriad of stretches at a dizzying speed. A lightning-speed rotation of hamstrings-back-neck-shoulders-calves, and then a couple of in-place jumps, and they seem good to go. But you’d always heard that it’s best to stretch out after a workout- So who’s right? Are you supposed to stretch before a workout, after cooldown, or both?
Before a workout:
Sure, you can stretch, but be careful. Commonplace stretches such as long-holding toe touches are a bad idea if completed before your muscles have had a chance to warm up. In fact, stretching cold muscles can be outright dangerous, as doing so can actually cause muscles to tighten and become more rigid, leading to a greater possible risk of injury. Plus, studies show these stretches, when done before a race or workout, can lead to poorer performance. Instead, many athletes prefer a quick, 6 or 7 minute jog to get nice and loose, and then hit the stretches.
Another pre-workout method of conditioning that we like involves warming up using dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretches move your body through mini versions of what your workout has in store for you. We’re talking walking lunges, running butt-kicks, and leg rotations at the hip. Movements like these get your muscles primed for your workout, and may give you a little stretch on the side, too.
After a workout:
Really, is there anything more satisfying than finishing a brutal (i.e.; awesome) workout and just folding yourself into some lavishly rewarding stretches? After you exercise is truly the best time for static stretching (or stretches that you hold for several seconds) because your muscles are really warm, and ripe for lengthening. In fact, the sooner that you can get your muscles lengthened to their normal, healthy state, the less time you’ll feel stiff and sore. Plus, if you actually take the few minutes at the end of every workout to properly stretch, you’ll likely even gain some flexibility which will lead to overall fewer body aches and pains. Plus, if your body feels good, you’re more likely to be active; and if you’re feeling active, you’re more likely to keep up with your workouts. Win-win-win.
If you want to take it up a notch and really give your muscles the grade-A treatment, after you work out, and before you stretch, do some foam-rolling. Foam-rolling, or self myofascial release, is the act of using your body weight to put pressure on your tight muscles on top of those compact canister-shaped foam logs, holding pressure on one area for several seconds before rolling to a new location. You’ll know you’ve found the right spot if it hurts a “good” hurt. Ask your HIIT trainer for a few tips if you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, or if you’ve never done it before. Experiment with rolling areas on your hips, glutes, legs (hello, IT band!), and upper back.
The bottom line is that if you treat your muscles well in regards to exercise, they’ll treat you well by feeling healthy, loose, and flexible. Stretching can often feel like an unnecessary time-waster, especially if the rest of your life is fast-paced and busy. And in that case, perhaps a few minutes of stretching and stillness might be exactly what you need.