Should hikers stretch?
Warm up for hiking: the best stretch is no stretch
This post begins to look at one of the key ideas in my book Hillfit:Strength
He’s there in the car park, suited and booted in the latest kit, ready for a day on in the mountains hill. His shiny, clean fashions and serious demeanour make you feel slightly inadequate in your old, reliable clothes and familiar rucksack. To emphasise his superiority he starts stretching: thighs, hamstrings, calves, looking like he really knows what he’s doing. He is obviously much more serious and well prepared than you. But is that true?
Stretching – magic movements?
People think that stretching before activity is good and hillwalkers and hikers are as prone to this assumption as other athletes. Surely it prevents soreness, avoids injury and prepares muscles for the rigors of exercise? Strangely enough, while people are busy stretching, sports scientists have published studies showing that static stretching before exercise does not prevent injuries, will not reduce soreness and, in many cases, will actually make you slower and weaker! (for example the latest one: Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance?)
Injury, soreness and performance
Static stretching is where you hold a position at the very edge of your muscles’ range of motion. There is evidence that this increases the muscle’s range of motion, but why is this good? Studies have found no proof that stretching prevents injury1.
Despite what you might read, there is also no evidence that stretching stops muscle pain after exercise. One review found “very consistent” evidence that post-exercise stretching has “minimal or no effect on the muscle soreness experienced 1-3 days after [exercise]2.” A recent article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine commented on an update of this research3 with a title that said it all: “Stretching before or after exercise does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness.”
Other studies have indicated that stretching before exercise may make you slower, weaker and less efficient4, not something that you want for a day on the hill! This phenomenon is not yet fully understood, but there are possible explanations:
i) static stretching of the legs’ spring-like muscles and tendons makes them less able to store energy so that they get “loose” when you walk and so become less efficient;
ii) stretching may have a “neuromuscular” effect by disrupting the signal between brain and muscle.
It is probably a combination of these factors, but whatever the cause, stretched muscles tend to be weaker. Interestingly, some studies have indicated that flexible runners are less efficient than those that are not as supple.
So how do you warm up?
If stretching is not good, what should you do to warm up? Feel free to stretch at other times, but not before you exercise.
A good way to prepare for hillwalking and other activities is with “dynamic stretches”, moves that put your muscles through the range of motion required for walking, without the extreme reach-and-hold poses that can cause problems.
Begin to walk slowly, gradually getting to your pace and then introduce some dynamic drills: march for 10 steps, lifting your knees high with each step; then kick your heels up behind you for a few steps so they almost touch your buttocks; swing your arms back and forth; finally take a some long, lunging steps. These moves will prepare your muscles, increase heart rate, body temperature and blood flow, helping you walk efficiently without damaging your performance.
You can read more about preparation for hiking and backpacking in my book Hillfit: Strength which gives a simple approach to developing the most important element of your fitness as a hiker, backpacker or hillwalker….strength
1. THACKER, S. B., J. GILCHRIST, D. F. STROUP, and C. D. KIMSEY, JR. The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 371-378, 2004.
2. Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD004577. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3
3. Stretching before or after exercise does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness Br J Sports Med bjsports-2011-090599Published Online First: 17 October 2011
4. Jason Winchester et al. Static Stretching Impairs Sprint Performance in Collegiate Track and Field Athletes Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2008 – Volume 22 – Issue 1 – pp 13-19 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31815ef202