Most of us have been taught that stretching is an important part of our health and fitness program but do you know whether the following statements are true or false?
Stretching prevents injury?
Stretching enhances athletic performance?
Stretching is always good?
Stretching must be painful to be effective?
Whether to stretch or not is confusing particularly as the recommendations seem to change from year to year and from professional to professional. If we ask the average individual why and when to stretch, the typical answer would be: before and after exercise in order to protect muscles from getting injured. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, the science behind stretching is not as simple as that. Although stretching has been strongly promoted as a way to decrease the risk of injury, prevent muscle soreness and improve performance, there is insufficient evidence to support these perspectives.
Here’s a quick review of what current research shows:
1. The University of Sydney1 reviewed 10 studies on stretching before or after athletic activity and the conclusion was that stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent postexercise muscle soreness, and neither does it prevent overuse or acute sport injuries.
2. Additional research2 comparing runners who stretched prior to a race with those who didn’t showed surprising results. The group that didn’t stretch ran faster than those who did! The conclusion was that the ability to produce and power was decreased by stretching.
3. Furthermore, in 2012, researchers from the University of Zareg in Croatia reviewed 104 studies of people who only practiced static stretching as their warm-up and found that this practice reduced muscle strength by 5.5%.
Lastly, an experimental trial conducted in 20133 found that it took almost 10 minutes to recover the strength lost by five minutes of static stretching. In other words, passive stretch prior to activity may actually be detrimental to sports performance.
When to stretch?
After reading this, you may be asking yourself why you were ever told to stretch, however the majority of this misinformation lies in a confusion of the understanding of the difference between stretching and warming up. Although these terms are used interchangeably they have very different meanings. Warming up is the act of raising the core or body temperature via external means or exercise. 4. In the context of exercise warming-up requires the performance of movement and the expenditure of energy to enhance the body’s readiness for exercise. This cannot be achieved with a passive act i.e. stretching. With a little more digging into the literature, a better clarification shows that warm up prior to exercise is what prevents injury, whereas stretching has very poor effect on it (Fradkin et al., 2006).
Nevertheless, let’s not forget about stretching completely. The latest studies show that the stretching is still important and is appropriate for different reasons. Stretching increases joint range of motion, improves joint function and increases performance of your daily activities and balance (Hong et al., 2012).
In summary, if injury prevention is the primary objective, the evidence suggests that stretching before exercise should be limited and the focus should be on warming-up. However if the goal is to maintain good range of motion and joint function then stretching should be done regularly after physical activity. This is why stretching is an integral part of most therapy programs.
Should stretching cause pain?
Although many people believe that to get the most from their stretching they need to feel pain this is one of the most common mistakes made with exercise. Feeling a low-level of discomfort or having a low-grade awareness of muscle activity for 20-30 minutes after exercise is acceptable however stretching is NOT meant to be painful. It should be pleasurable, relaxing and very beneficial. Stretching is only beneficial when you feel better during AND after the activity. If the pain increases or persists STOP the exercise and consult your physiotherapist for an evaluation to determine if stretching is the best approach for your goals and symptoms.
You can now answer the quiz knowing that research doesn’t support these myths and can quote the facts when the person next to you in the gym tells you that you are not doing the right exercise program.
1) Prevent injuries and improve range of motion and joint function, by warming up before an activity and stretching after.
2) Stretching should be pleasant, relaxing and pain free
3) If you feel pain either during or after a stretch, stop the activity and consult your physiotherapist.
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1 Herbert & Noronha, 2012
2 Buresh & Trehearn, 2009
3 Yishihisa et al., 2013
4 Oxford Dictionary of Sport Studies