Q+A: How long should I hold a stretch?

Q On a recent visit to a podiatrist I was given a stretching programme in which I was told to hold each stretch for up to 15 minutes. I was surprised by the length of these stretches, as I’ve always been told that you should do stretches in three sets of 30 seconds. The podiatrist explained that 15 minutes was needed to fatigue the stretch receptors in the muscle. Is this right?

A It’s true that of all exercises, stretching is perhaps the one which is most open to interpretation. People can be told to hold stretches from ‘a few seconds’ to ‘a few minutes’, and very definite time periods in between.

There is a body of evidence that suggests stretch receptors disengage after approximately 30 seconds of stretching. The standard 3 x 30 seconds on that basis is therefore well considered. There are also some experts who suggest that if the muscle is to be stretched more specifically, then the stretch can be held for longer – up to two minutes.

It is somewhat unusual, though, to hold stretches for 15 minutes, and despite a recent search of the literature, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to support this idea. Indeed, it may be argued that holding a stretch for so long may actually precondition nerves (which is a bad thing) and lead to muscle spasm, which would obviously be counterproductive. So unless your podiatrist can demonstrate a body of evidence to support this claim, the 30-second stretches may well be more appropriate.

Martin Haines, chartered physiotherapist and sports injury specialist