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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
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Coach Tip Tuesday: What Stretching Actually Is

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An adult and child stretching on the floor.



  1. (of something soft or elastic) be made or be capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.

When considering what stretching is, this is the most common definition that people know.  When asking what “stretching a muscle” means, most athletes would likely answer “to make the muscle longer.”  Unfortunately, this definition as it relates to the body’s soft tissues is incorrect.

The soft tissues of the body, to include muscles, tendons, and ligaments, have fixed points of origin and insertion into the bones.  This is a fancy way of saying that where your muscles and other soft tissues begin and end cannot - and will not - ever be moved.  Since the length of our bones doesn’t change, this means that both the origin and insertion points of soft tissues are fixed and also don’t change.  Thus, there isn’t any possible way for these soft tissues to be “stretched” as per this definition of the word; we cannot actually make a muscle longer.

Stretching = Increased Range of Motion

When we refer to muscles being “tight,” it doesn’t mean that the muscle is shorter and needs to be lengthened.  Rather, it means that the muscle (or other soft tissues) has become restricted and that its range of motion is limited.  If you’ve ever pulled or strained a muscle, you know what this feels like.  When you try to force a muscle to go beyond its current range of motion, you are attempting to impose a load that exceeds the muscle’s current capacity, and an injury such as a muscle pull, strain, or tear can occur.  Stretching helps ease these restrictions and increase overall range of motion, both in the short-term and in the long-term.

Increasing range of motion is important for a lot of reasons.  Restricted ranges of motion increase the risk of injury for everyone, not just athletes.  (How many people do you know who have pulled a muscle just from bending the wrong way or turning too quickly?)  Additionally, when an athlete is experiencing a restricted range of motion, it limits the amount of adaptation they will be able to get from workouts.  This is a fancy way of saying decreased ranges of motion not only increase injury risk, but they limit the amount of progress that athletes will actually see.  

It’s important to remember that the point of doing workouts is to create a situation in which an athlete is imposing a stimulus that will elicit desired adaptations over time.  Doing workouts for the sake of doing workouts or “checking the box” is not enough, and it’s not what we’re after.  Ensuring that they are moving through appropriate ranges of motion is a foundation from which athletes will be able to see performance gains from the workouts they do.  In addition, it is a foundation from which people can cultivate a healthy existence where they are mobile and agile for a higher percentage of their overall lives.  Stretching is one of the first and easiest ways athletes - and humans! - can begin to assess and address this.

The Three Main Types of Stretches

When I write training for athletes, I recommend three main types of stretches: Ballistic Stretches, Passive Stretches, and Active Stretches.  Each type of stretching has merits in different situations, but all three types are valuable for athletes to do regularly.

Ballistic Stretches are rapid movements.  I most frequently recommend these to athletes before workouts or races as part of a dynamic warm-up.  Ballistic stretches work wonderfully in this situation because they help athletes work through the ranges of motion that they’re likely to employ in the workout or race.  Some examples are Airplane to High Knee or Hamstring Pulses for runners and Wall Angels for swimmers.

Passive Stretches are what most people probably think about when they hear the term “stretching.”  To do a passive stretch, you assume a certain position to create a stretch on a muscle and you hold it there - either using another part of your body, a tool (such as a band), or the help of another person.  Some examples of passive stretches are placing your toes against the wall while keeping your heel on the ground to create a stretch in your calf muscles or folding forward (either from a standing or sitting position) to create a stretch in your hamstrings.  I recommend passive stretches as a daily habit and recovery modality.

Active Stretches are when we contract one muscle to create a stretch in another.  Muscle groups work in pairs; every muscle group has an agonist and an antagonist.  Agonists work as the prime movers (the major force producer) for a particular joint action or movement.  (For example, the biceps are the agonists in a biceps curl.)  Antagonists are muscles that oppose the prime mover; in many cases they are literally located on the opposite side of the agonist.  (As an example, the triceps are the antagonists to the biceps in a biceps curl.)  An example of an active stretch would be a Rear Foot Elevated Squat; in a Rear Foot Elevated Squat, you are engaging your glutes, which extends the hip, which therefore creates a stretch in your quadriceps.  I recommend active stretches as part of strength training workouts and as part of daily recovery.

Stretching Best Practices

There are several ways that you can get the most out of your time spent stretching: Breathe deeply, take your time, incorporate assistive devices as needed, and make it a daily habit.

Breathe Deeply

When you stretch, explore your body and seek out areas of tightness or restriction.  No matter what type of stretch you are doing - ballistic, passive, or active - when you find something that feels tight or restricted, work through it by gently increasing and then decreasing (relaxing) the intensity of the stretch.  Breathe deeply (ideally through your nose, not your mouth) as you do this.  

An inhale for a 5-count, a 1-count pause, and then an exhale for a 5-count (again, ideally all through your nose) is a good deep breathing rhythm to practice.  If you struggle to breathe deeply during a stretch, you have pushed too hard and too far.  Reduce the intensity to a point where you can breathe deeply and resume the stretch from there.

Take Your Time

We love to tell ourselves that we can multitask (that’s a myth) or that we can shortcut things and still get the same result as if we took the long way.  These are stories that we tell ourselves, and they are not true.  With stretching, we need to take our time and hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds in order to see a long-term benefit.  This has everything to do with important proprioceptors called Golgi Tendon Organs.

Golgi Tendon Organs are components of the body’s Central Nervous System.  They are located at the musculotendinous junction (aka where a muscle connects to a tendon).  (Remember that tendons are the connective tissues that connect muscles to bones.)  Golgi Tendon Organs measure the amount and rate of tension that develops within a muscle.  If the tension that is developed is too much, or if tension is imposed too rapidly, the Golgi Tendon Organ will cause the muscle to relax as a safety response.  Golgi Tendon Organs are constantly monitoring muscular contraction and tension, and they will signal a muscle to relax after approximately 30 seconds of applied tension to the muscle.  

It is at this point - once the Golgi Tendon Organ has signaled the muscle to relax - that the muscle and joint can be taken further into their range of motion.  Since this process takes 30 seconds, we must hold a stretch (particularly a passive or active stretch) for at least 30 seconds; we must allow time for the Golgi Tendon Organ to inhibit the muscle.  If a stretch is held for less than 30 seconds, it’s as if you never stretched at all.  This is not a case where something is better than nothing; if you don’t hold a stretch for at least 30 seconds, you might as well not do it.  It’s as simple and as hard as that.

When leveraging stretching as a recovery modality or throughout the day, it’s beneficial to spend at least two minutes per stretch or per major muscle group.  If you are stretching immediately before a workout or a race, aim for a shorter duration (30-45 seconds per stretch or major muscle group), as research has shown that longer duration stretching reduces strength and power production in the short-term.

Incorporate Assistive Devices as Needed

Tools such as a band, towel, wall, table, or exercise ball can all be really useful, especially if you are stretching on your own without someone to assist you and/or you cannot use your own body parts to engage the stretch.  Tools can help you place your joints in an optimal position and/or help you get to the correct intensity so that your range of motion will ultimately be increased.

Make it a Daily Habit

Stretching should be a part of every athlete’s daily routine.  Yes, daily.  (That means every day, not just once or twice a week when you remember or it’s convenient to do.)  Consistency is important in so many aspects of life and endurance sports training, and stretching isn’t any different.  In fact, consistency may arguably be more important for stretching than it is for other aspects of training.

The length of time to results varies depending on the muscle group, but research shows that it takes 3-8 weeks of consistent, daily stretching to see the tangible differences in range of motion (aka to see gains from stretching).  Unfortunately, losses in range of motion occur when you stop stretching for ⅓ of the time it takes to see gains.  This means that a gain in range of motion that takes six weeks to realize via stretching will be lost in only two weeks if that consistency is not maintained.  Stretching isn’t something that you do once or twice, see gains from, and then retain those gains for a long time.  It takes constant reinforcement and practice for your body to maintain the ranges of motion that are gained through stretching.

You don’t need to set aside a single block of time for daily stretching (though it’s fine if you do!).  If needed, you can break up your stretching and sprinkle in shorter sessions (such as 2-5 minutes at a time) throughout the day.  (In fact, there’s some evidence that doing it this way is really beneficial since you are providing a frequent, consistent stimulus to the body to show it that it can safely move through different ranges of motion.)  Stretching can be effective any time.  If you’re sitting in front of the TV, stretch.  If you’re needing a brief respite from work, stretch.  If you’re playing Legos with your kids, stretch.  If you’re bored, stretch instead of immediately turning to a digital diversion (such as your phone).

The Bottom Line

Stretching is such a beneficial and important practice that it’s the one and only thing that I write into all training plans and into all programming for the athletes I coach.  While every athlete is an individual and is going to have different ranges of motion and movement patterns, the principle of stretching is one that every single athlete, no matter their ability or their sport, should incorporate into their daily routine so that they can reduce their probability of injury and increase the probability that they see performance gains over time.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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