Whether you play sports or work out to keep in shape, the likelihood is that people who exercise regularly will sustain injuries at some point. We are all taught the importance of stretching before exercise from a very young age, but other than the relatively vague explanation of “warming up”, not everyone can explain how exactly it helps. Even fewer people can explain the benefits of cooling down, or stretching after a workout. Both of these are particularly important when recovering from an injury, and here we are going to look at exactly why this is the case.
One of the first things to note is that, while your body will always do its best to heal itself, it can only do so much without you putting in some effort. As amazing as the human body is, it is very easy for it to heal improperly. Furthermore, depending on the severity of the injury, you may be out of action for a while, leading to a natural decline in your abilities. When you do start to resume your workout routine, odds are you will not be picking up where you left off, but will need to work yourself back up to that point.
Stretching before a workout increases your flexibility and range of motion, both of which will be reduced as a result of your injury. On top of that, reduced flexibility and range of motion make it more likely that you will sustain future injuries, making stretching even more important. There are two main theories as to why stretching regularly actually improves your abilities. The first is that it literally increases the length of your muscles over time, allowing you to make more complex movements while putting less stress on your muscles. The second theory is that stretching increases your nerve tolerance, allowing you to stretch your muscles further without your body perceiving it as pain.
The most frequently touted benefit of post-workout stretches is that it allows your body to cool down gradually, rather than getting it all worked up and stopping suddenly, which can put your heart under a lot of stress. But the true benefits extend beyond that. Interestingly, although blood flow actually decreases during stretches, once the stretch is finished, it increases beyond pre-stretch levels. At the same time, it also reduces the levels of pain felt in the muscles after a workout.
But arguably the greatest benefit of post-workout stretching is the effect it has on your Parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” aspect of your nervous system. This is essentially what makes your body unwind and relax, carrying out jobs like restricting pupils, digesting food, and slowing your heart rate. Post workout stretches have been shown to improve the functionality of this system in both the short and long term, which brings us back to one of our first points: the body can only do so much on its own, but stretching can actually increase your body’s ability to look after itself, even after you’ve wrapped up for the day.
When it comes to stretching, many people simply think of the rubber band analogy: the more you stretch it, the easier it is to stretch. As fitting an analogy as that may be, the human body is a lot more complex, and as we have seen here, the benefits of stretching are much more far-reaching than many people give it credit for.