When it comes to stretching, I’m a skeptic about its purported benefits (see here, here and here for instance). I’m a huge fan of warming up before exercising. But stretching? Eh.
But, when you have knee pain, stretching your leg muscles often feels good. I was a bit of a “closet stretcher” myself during my recovery, long after I was convinced that stretching was a waste of time.
Because I was injured. When you’re injured, the hurt area feels tight and uncomfortable. It’s like your bad knee is smack dab at the center of an intense knot.
Partly that’s because of swelling in the joint, according to Doug Kelsey. A little swelling goes a long way. It inhibits muscle function, impairs movement, and leaves you eager to stretch everything from your IT band to hamstrings for relief.
I certainly did! Early on, my physical therapist prescribed quad stretches. My immediate reaction: “Wow! This is great. Why didn’t anyone tell me about these before?” But a stretched muscle eventually contracts and, sadly, I discovered that the window of relief from stretching began shrinking. (Note: In Paul Ingraham’s long essay on the subject, he notes that it has been shown to take at least 20 minutes of sustained stretching to actually improve range of motion. Try doing that every day for all the muscles you want to stretch, and you may find you need to switch to a part-time job just to get all your stretching in).
So, you must be thinking, I gave up stretching after learning all I did. Wrong! Occasionally, I still stretched during the later stages of my recovery. Again, it felt good. Plus, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking, “Hey, what if I’m wrong? At the very least, it can’t hurt.” (Which is true, I believe, for most stretches if you do them gently enough.)
Fast forward to today. My knees are fine. And I’m back to being the same old Richard as before my go-round with knee pain: a slender, fairly fit person with very little flexibility. (I’m almost the opposite of double-jointed, whatever that is.) And I never stretch.
Should you stretch? If it feels good and isn’t hurting your knees, and you want to, I see no reason why not to. Go for it! My sole reservation would be this: If you have only 30 minutes a day, say, for activities related to knee rehab, and you’re spending 10 of those minutes on an elaborate routine of stretching, I’d hit the rethink button (note: this isn’t the same as the reset button, but it’s close :)).
Between 10 minutes of stretching and 20 minutes of easy walking, and 0 minutes of stretching and 30 minutes of easy walking, I know which I’d choose, in a heartbeat. What about you?