Yesterday, while I was browsing Facebook, I happened to click on a link that advertised the 30 best premium WordPress themes. Curious, I started to browse through the list, and I came upon one that I was curious about: “spartan,” which has a nice internet-mag style layout.
As I looked at the live preview—nothing fancy; just catchy headlines, stock images and lipsum text—I scrolled down and saw that one of the example articles had a headline that read: “Don’t forget to stretch after your workout!”
Our predilection towards stretching after a workout is so ingrained that it shows up even as a headline for these kinds of stock articles. As a cultural trope, static stretching is incredibly ubiquitous to our idea of what is “beneficial” for exercise. It’s a safe bet that the writers of that page probably just put down the first thing that occurred to them. And their associations between static stretching, health, and workouts were so strong that they thought of static stretching before anything else.
This is a problem.
Static stretching is one of the worst things you can do for your body when warming up or cooling down after a workout, unless you’re a martial artist, a gymnast or a ballet dancer. However, the image above the headline shows a lady in running clothes and running shoes. I’d say this highly suggests that this headline refers to running.
Which makes it even worse: static stretching is especially bad for runners. This is old news in the scientific community. Experiment after experiment has found that either static stretching has no health benefits, or that it is actively detrimental to a person’s athletic capability.
This headline illustrates a very interesting part of the reason why people stretch: static stretching is a cultural icon. In the same way that coffee has been associated with waking up, and alcohol has been associated with social diversion, static stretching has been associated with exercise. Of course, it may feel good, but so does drinking coffee and alcohol. Exactly like static stretching, both coffee and alcohol do you no favors in the long run. (I do mean exactly: these three things are all examples of shifting the burden—i.e., they seem like short-term “solutions” to a problem, but only succeed in making that problem worse in the long run).
This is a great example of just how socially constructed our notions about exercise actually are. We’d like to think that training and exercise is a purely physical and physiological event. It is not. Our psychology plays a heavy role in how, why and whether we exercise. Society also weighs in on what kinds of sports are important, and what techniques we should use to develop our bodies. The researchers and sports scientists (and even elite coaches) have long since stopped recommending that athletes indulge in static stretching. But the cultural icon of stretching still encroaches on our ideas about exercise, our training routines, and ultimately our biomechanics.
Our reality is what it is. We train in the biopsychosocial system. For every single thing that we become aware of, which affects our mind and alters our idea of how we “should” train, there are a hundred more that we are completely blind to. But knowing that there is a chance that our favorite workout has long since been disavowed by the cutting edge of athletics, and is now vetted by culture alone, is a place to start.