by William A. Sands PhD, CSCS
Learn about the body’s adaptations to different types of post-workout activities. Did you know that serious stretching after a workout is contraindicated for recovery? Instead, avoid serious stretching after training and use a mild exercise to cool down.
Recovery means to return what was lost. In exercise, we think of recovery as more than this. We would like to believe that recovery following exercise does not simply return what was lost, but also enhances our function. This article will use the term “recovery-adaptation” to refer to the idea of enhanced function after exercise. Of course, immediately after exercise you will be tired. The effects of training are delayed for a period of one to several days after your exercise session.
The delay of enhanced function has been called the long-term lag of training effect (16). Exercisers and athletes are often counseled to stretch following their workouts to enhance their recovery-adaptation; however, is this a good idea? Historically, it has been thought that stretching should reduce muscle stiffness and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (4,5).
Exercise folklore on recovery-adaptation often encourages stretching following exercise with little or no justification. Recovery modalities are most frequently associated with enhancing blood and lymph flow in order to nourish muscles and remove waste products. For example, heat, cold, contrast (heat and cold), hydrotherapy, static compression, dynamic compression, vibration, mild exercise, electrical stimulation, and massage are all thought to enhance recovery due to their ability to enhance blood and lymph flow.
Exercise folklore on recovery-adaptation often encourages stretching following exercise with little or no justification.
Stretching is “…the application of force to musculotendinous structures in order to achieve a change in their length, usually for the purposes of improving joint range of motion, reducing stiffness or soreness, or preparing for activity,” (1). Pre-exercise stretching appears to have no effect on muscle soreness, tenderness, or loss of force following high-intensity eccentric exercise (7). Research by Cheung, Hume, and Maxwell showed dose-dependent positive effects on DOMS from anti-inflammatory medications, while massage depended on the type of technique used (3).
They noted that cryotherapy, stretching, homeopathy, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation demonstrated no positive effect on the relief of muscle soreness (3). Stretching before or after exercise did not improve DOMS according to a study by Wessel and Wan (17). Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, stretching decreases blood flow (12). Blood flow, capillary region oxygenation, and velocity of red blood cells have been shown to decrease during stretching by several investigators (11,13,14). If a goal of recovery-adaptation modalities is to increase blood flow, it would appear that stretching after a workout does not help and may actually discourage blood flow.
Although it may sound like heresy, serious stretching after workout is contraindicated for recovery (15). A paradox results when people who want to increase their flexibility are told to do their stretching following their workout when they are warm from the previous exertion. This paradox can be resolved by noting that application of both heat and cold can increase flexibility (2,6). Also, the key factor in developing flexibility is developing a “stretch-tolerance” which refers to one learning how to stretch rather than actually changing tissue structure and function (8,9,10). In short, avoid serious stretching after training and use a mild exercise to cool down.