We have all been told to stretch but rarely are we told just how long you should stretch for. The arguments are many and varied as to why we should stretch, with some people refusing to stretch and others stretching multiple times a day. However, getting an explanation as to why someone has chosen to stretch as many times as they have, or how long they hold their stretch for, is usually based on personal preference to pure guess work. In this article I intend to clarify for everyone how long they should stretch for to see an increased range of movement (ROM).
In October last year I was out fell running when I mis-stepped and put myself down a small rut in the track. The drop was only 2-3ft but my leg went across my body and at the time I thought I had jarred my knee. Upon further examination, in an A&E room, what I had actually done was strain the medial ligaments in my knee, pulled my hamstring, strained the hamstring tendons at the knee joint and where the hamstring joins near the glute, and tweaked my calf muscle straining the tendons there.
At the time the physio wasn’t sure how I had managed to achieve so much damage and not rupture my cruciate ligaments or meniscus but I always like to provide a good talking point. Never the less, the damage I had managed to achieve meant I would go on a journey of rehab that would lead me down the route to the importance of stretching, something I had arrogantly believed I had no need for.
Apart from pain, and a distinct lack of being able to take part in anything remotely challenging fitness wise, the main issue I had with my injury, in the chronic phases, was a complete lack of range of motion. Going through the NHS meant a long wait for access to a physio but luckily I was able to manage the acute phases myself easily enough. However, stretching was something I just didnt recognise a need for. It wasn’t until my physio asked me to do a simple test I realised how bad I had let myself get.
If you lie on your back, bring your knee up to 90 degrees, and then try to straighten your leg, you will notice it gets hard to keep your leg straight at 90 degrees. To fully straighten your leg will drop a few degrees until the leg is fully straight. The angle created between your straight leg and the one lay on the floor is your range of movement.
A healthy range is about 90 degrees (ish), I was struggling to get 60 degrees and was in a full body shake at that. Once I started the stretching however, performance increased, range of movement increased and recovery times diminished. I was prescribed to carry out stretching multiple times a day but it got me thinking, how often (if my leg hadn’t been hanging off at the time) should I have been stretching to maintain ROM?
If you are a runner you are guaranteed to notice, if you don’t stretch, the ache and body cramp you go through for a day or two after a run. Since I have introduced stretching, I have managed to reduce this to manageable levels and keep my injury on the mend by carrying out a warm down stretch immediately after my workout and then a remedial stretch and foam roll in the evenings. Again this is just my personal routine so below I have got the official findings of “The Journal of American Physical Therapy” to arm you with the facts.
Bandy et al (1997) studied the differences between several groups who carried out 3 x 1 minute stretches, 3 x 30 second stretches, 1 x 1 minute stretch, 1 x 30 second stretch and a group that didn’t stretch at all. What they noticed, rather unsurprisingly, is that stretching increases and maintains range of movement in your muscles in comparison to not stretching. However, they also found that there was no significant difference in range of movement increase between any of the stretching groups. So, if you stretched for 1 x 30 seconds it was as good as stretching 3 x 1 minute. Bandy et al concluded that holding a stretch for 30 seconds was the most optimal time to hold a stretch for to increase and maintain ROM.
How do I use this info?
I still like to stretch multiple times a day; I start to seize up when I have carried out heavy exercise and it probably puts me in a more positive mental state about recovery. I hold my stretches for 30 seconds as a minimum and also include a foam roller session daily to get rid of any kinks.
My rehab journey has brought home the importance of range of movement and recovery and I probably put as much effort into recovery as I do my actual sessions now.
I’d love to know if you found this useful so please leave a comment!
Bandy, W. D., Irion, J. M., Briggler, M. (1997) The Effect of Time & Frequency of Static Stretching on Flexibility of The Hamstring Muscle. Physical Therapy, 77. 1090-1096.