It is common practice to stretch before exercise but recent research has cast doubts on the effectiveness of stretching. Specifically, the usefulness of stretching in reducing the risk of injury, improving performance and preventing sore muscles.
However, there’s no evidence to suggest that stretching does you any harm either or makes it more likely that you will injure yourself.
What’s the point of stretching?
Stretching improves flexibility – the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion. Some activities require greater flexibility than others, for example; gymnastics or ballet. Research suggests that it’s more important to stretch prior to activities demanding greater flexibility.
What happens when we stretch?
The exact mechanics are not fully understood but regular stretching is thought to increase flexibility, making muscles more supple and retraining the nervous system to tolerate further stretching. The flexibility gained by regular stretching is quickly lost if you stop.
How much flexibility do I need?
Again, that depends on what you’re doing. To generate power during exercise, the muscles and tendons store and release energy. Too much flexibility has been suggested to reduce the spring-function of a muscle, which we rely on in activities such as running, jogging, football and basketball.
It is however accepted that too little flexibility means that the muscles are not able to lengthen and absorb this energy and are more susceptible to strains or tears.
Does stretching before exercise affect performance?
As mentioned above, stretching prior to exercise makes your muscles weaker and slower, even though they feel looser. However, stretching also increases your range of movement if that is something required of the athlete, e.g. a ballerina who needs to do a full split during their performance.
Dr Kay who was the author on one of the largest reviews looking into pre-performance stretching believes that the reduction in performance from pre-exercise stretching is overstated and that most recreational stretchers wouldn’t be doing enough stretching to cause a problem.
Does stretching before exercising reduce the risk of injury?
The evidence strongly suggests that this is not the case. Three large randomised controlled trials investigating this all found that stretching had little or no beneficial effect on reduction in injury risk.
When do injuries occur?
Muscle injuries happen when the muscle is put under too great a stress and the muscle isn’t producing enough force to support its function, e.g. when lowering a heavy weight. This is usually because the muscle isn’t producing enough force, either because it is not strong enough or didn’t contract at the right time for that movement.
Does stretching reduce soreness?
There is no evidence to suggest that stretching reduces or prevents delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the pain that usually creeps in a day or two after exercising.
So, should I stretch before exercise?
In conclusion, it’s up to you! If you’re trying to reduce injury it’s probably not going to be that helpful. If your aim is greater flexibility then you have more to gain from stretching then you lose in the small loss of force. Your time is better spent warming up the muscles which are going to be used by doing a similar activity at a lower intensity, for example a fast paced walk before you launch into a full sprint.
How should I warm up?
The purpose of a warmup is to raise the heart rate and increase blood flow to the muscles. Warm muscles are more flexible and work more efficiently. Warming up also activates the nerve signals to your muscles, which results in faster reaction times. A typical warm up will involve some light aerobic movements and some dynamic stretching which relates to the activity about to be performed. In other words, performing gentle repetitive movements, such as arm swings, where one gradually increases the range of motion of the movement.
Should I stretch after exercising?
There is some evidence that regular static stretching outside periods of exercise may increase power and speed and reduce injury. The best time to stretch is when the muscles and warm and more pliable.
An osteopathic note from me:
Most of the research surrounding stretching is looking at whether it prevents injuries sustained during that activity. Whilst the evidence suggests that stretching isn’t important prior to exercise to prevent muscle injury, there is no doubt that tight muscles dictate how the body is able to move and function. The majority of acute low back pain that osteopaths see coincides with tight hips and or hamstrings/calves which we suspect puts the lower back under greater strain. Keeping the muscles of the neck & shoulders loose could help prevent headaches (cervicogenic) and other problems arising.
So whilst the evidence surrounding stretching related to exercise is underwhelming, we have all seen the benefits of regular stretching to ensure full range of movement and allowing all of your joints and body parts to provide the function that they have adapted for.
If you’d like to find out more about how osteopathy can help to prevent exercise related injury and increase flexibility, please contact me on email@example.com or 07534933516
NHS Choices https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/Do-I-need-to-stretch-before-or-after-a-run-or-sports-and-exercise.aspx
Kay & Blazevich (2012) The American College of Sports Medicine (https://www.anatomytrains.com/wp-content/uploads/manual/acute_stretch.pdf)