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To Stretch or Not to stretch…

What is the current thinking on when to stretch to prevent injury or improve performance?

There are differing opinions about whether or not stretching is something that we should do around our sporting activities to prevent injury and improve performance, and those opinions seem to have shifted over time.  A quick google search will provide a range of options on if, when and how to stretch, and there was even a recent article in the New York Times that brought a lot of the latest opinion together from the research evidence base to provide an overview of the current consensus (1) .

Stretching (in this context, we are taking about static stretching – taking a muscle into a point of stretch, and then holding for 20 to 30 seconds) generally aims to lengthen muscles that feel tight, and the idea of stretching muscles to warm them before exercise was thought to help prevent injury. However, based on existing evidence, the current consensus would suggest there is little point and that dynamic, gentle movements that relate to the exercise you are about to do are likely to provide more benefit in terms of increasing blood flow to the muscles and ‘warm them up’.

What about the impact of pre-exercise stretching on performance?  There has been some debate about whether static stretching before exercise can decrease the force and power of the muscle output, and therefore have a detrimental impact on performance.  The evidence (albeit more limited than that related to the injury prevention effects of pre-exercise stretching) does indeed suggest that there is a short-lived decrease in the power output of muscles after static stretching, and this could indeed impact performance.  However, this impact is measured in minutes, and the reduction in power is a matter of percentage points, meaning that the impact is likely to be limited.  Clearly, if you are a competitive athlete and power output is critical to your performance, you are probably best to avoid deep, static stretching directly prior to your event.  However stretching the day before is unlikely to have any impact on performance.

What about stretching as part of your training programme to enhance performance or avoid injury?  Again, there are different opinions here!  Some would say stretching to improve flexibility (which clearly is an outcome of regular stretching exercise) does just that – improve flexibility for its own sake.  And this may be your goal and make you feel better, in which case why not?  But that there is little or no benefit for sporting performance.  From the perspective of a soft tissue therapist, I would argue (along with many others) that ensuring good joint mobility and flexibility related to the activity that you undertake, through regular stretching and flexibility work will enhance your performance by ensuring you avoid potential injury.  Not addressing the build up of tension as a consequence of your sporting activities through a regular conditioning and stretching programme is likely to exacerbate any muscle imbalances and could potentially impair your performance.  Maintaining good flexibility through regular stretching, foam rolling and regular massage therapy can help keep you injury free and performing at your optimal level.

And what about after-activity stretching?  There is some research evidence and a lot of anecdotal evidence that static stretching after exercise can improve recovery times, reducing the impact of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).  The act of stretching may help release the cross-bridges that connect the contracted muscle fibres, allowing the muscles to return to their pre-resting length.  The neuromuscular pathways can also be reset by the stretching action, resulting in the nervous system ‘telling’ the muscles that it is OK to lengthen (the shortening of muscles is a protective reflex triggered by the nervous system responding to sensory input from the soft tissues).

In summary, the current consensus would seem to be: 

  • Not much point doing static stretches before exercise – dynamic warm up instead to get blood flowing
  • Do stretch after exercise as it can aid recovery times
  • Do consider a stretching / flexility element to your training, thinking about what and where to improve flexibility that can aid your performance for your sport of choice
  • Do do stretching and flexibility work if you have a sedentary lifestyle – it will help with overall mobility, muscle balance and wellbeing – it feels good!