In a previous article, we discussed how to perform a proper warm up prior to exercise and advanced physical activities. But what should you do after you exercise?

There are many factors that influence recovery after physical activity, and static stretching has popularly been emphasized as a critical component. Owen Walker of Science for Sport has an excellent article discussing some of the effects of post-exercise static stretching. You can read his article in its entirety here. Though it was written for coaches, the information would be helpful for anyone looking to improve their workout recovery. Here are the key points:

  • Static stretching is one of many different types of stretching. A static stretch is one that is held for longer than 30 seconds.
  • Recovery refers not only to the body’s return to its pre-workout state, but it requires achieving physical gains according to each person’s goals. So if someone’s goal is to build strength and endurance, true recovery would mean that he is able to increase his repetitions and the resistance or weight he is using over a reasonable period of time. (This time period will be different for every person’s goals and experience level. Consult with your trainer or clinician if you are concerned about your progress).  
  • Static stretching “appears to have a rebounding effect on muscle blood flow–i.e. Reduces flow during the stretch, but quickly elevates it afterwards.” Theoretically, this may provide the benefit of bringing in nutrients and removing wastes from the local tissues, but this is not yet confirmed with evidence.
  • One of the mostly popularly given reasons for static stretching is to reduce muscle soreness. The article points out that research indicates static stretching only has a small effect on reducing muscle soreness. However, it is still worth noting, as there are likely some athletes and weekend warriors out there who desire every little bit of improvement in this area.
    Walker’s article does not mention this, but I think it’s important to note that studies assess broad, widespread results. If you personally experience great alleviation of muscle soreness from static stretching, and you enjoy static stretching after exercise, there’s no reason to discontinue just because a study say that, in general, it doesn’t help. Again and as always, speak to your trainer or clinician if you have questions about your personal exercise routine and recovery. 

  • Static stretching helps promote recovery by promoting relaxation. Our autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.  You may have heard of these as the “fight, flight, or freeze” system and the “rest and digest” system, respectively. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated through relaxation, and it helps with recovery and return to homeostasis. Static stretching has been shown to improve heart rate variability, which is an indication of healthy activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, and thus helps the body to enter a state of recovery.
  • Another benefit of static stretching after exercise is increased flexibility, which is generally a goal for people seeking to find more ease and comfort in their movement. It does this through modulation of the nervous system to increase the muscle’s “stretch tolerance,” but new evidence also suggests that stretching does indeed change the structure of a muscle to some degree.
  • Lastly, it is important to remember that “recovery entails many, many topics.” Post-exercise stretching is not the only factor to consider in recovery. (My personal favorite modes of recovery, in addition to stretching, are a relaxing bath, mindfulness exercises, and some home-made chocolate milk).

Next time on the blog, we’ll discuss some favorite post-exercise stretches. Until then, keep moving!

Image credit: B. Geurts, upload by Erik1980 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]