We’ve all heard that you should stretch before exercise in order to avoid injuries. But it that really true? Or maybe you think stretching will improve your athletic performance or prevent soreness. Are either of those really true? Apparently NONE of these things is true, according to the most recent academic research.
In 2010, the American College of Sports Medicine advised against static stretching before workouts or athletic competition. The European College of Sport Sciences has also issued a position statement saying that such stretching could “diminish” athletic performance. Studies at George Washington University and the USA Track and Field Association found that that stretching before running does not reduce the incidence of injuries at all. See: http://healthland.time.com/2011/02/18/skip-the-stretch-before-running-%e2%80%94-it-doesnt-prevent-injuries/#ixzz2Kegufmg7. These studies found that when athletes did the typical static hold stretches, their athletic performance was often worse than when they did not stretch. The stretched muscle seemed to tighten, instead of loosen as expected.
Ensuing research seemed to attempt to rebut these recommendations and to show the benefits of stretching. A 2011 article published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reviewed over a hundred studies and concluded that the detrimental effects of static stretch are mainly limited to those lasting more than a minute. The article suggests that stretches shorter than that wouldn’t hurt! Other studies, reviewed in The European Journal of Applied Physiology found that a substantial number of the studies did not find “detrimental effects associated with prior static stretching,” especially if the stretches were “of short duration.” Another 2011 study published in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed that a static-stretching routine “did not have an adverse effect” on the participants’ performance in a running test. Translation: No benefit seen, no harm in stretches don’t last too long.
Stretch for Flexibility or to Avoid Soreness?
Do you stretch in order to avoid soreness? A study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed more than ten recent studies on stretching and concluded that. “stretching does not produce important reductions in muscle soreness…” In one of these studies, conducted at the George Institute for Global Health at the University of Sydney, most of the 2,000+ participants said they stretched regularly and that they did it largely to avoid soreness. But the study found that there was no significant difference in soreness between those who stretched before exercise and those who didn’t.
Stretching can improve flexibility, but flexibility for what? People training with weighs can benefit from a brief warm-up, but most cardiovascular exercises like running do not require much flexibility. It does make sense that stretching can increase the range of motion of a muscle. If that is true, it also seems that the chance of straining that muscle would be less for a muscle with a greater range of motion. However, range of motion also seems more important for weight training than for running, as muscle strains are a lot less common for runners than overuse injuries are, and stretching does not seem to reduce the incidence over overuse injuries.
Despite all this doubt, those over a certain age know that stretching brings its own reward. Being able to stretch is good. If you don’t stretch now, your range of motion will continue to narrow as you age. All of the studies cited above were conducted with college-age participants or athletes. Folks who have been around for a while don’t need a study to convince them that they would rather have a wide range of motion than a narrow one.
Assuming that stretching is indeed a good thing, the question becomes whether it is best performed before or after exercise. The old presumption was that it had to be done before exercise in order to avoid injury during the exercise to follow. However, since the research shows that stretching does not prevent injury, the best time to stretch for flexibility is after a run, when your muscles are warm and therefore less likely to strain or tear from the stretch.
For a further discussion o stretching, see a report from Stanford University about the merits of stretching.