Among those who exercise, there are several misconceptions about stretching in general, and more so about its usefulness prior to playing any sport. Recent studies suggest that stretching before or after exercise does not prevent muscle soreness or muscle injury. It seems to have limited use at best. In fact, improper stretching can, at times, cause injuries.
What is stretching?
The traditional stretches commonly done are called “static stretching”. They involve holding a stretch for a fixed amount of time, ranging from a few seconds to a few minutes. The other type of stretching, called “dynamic stretching”, involves stretching muscles while moving.
The theory is that ‘cold’ tendons are less elastic, and this is why you stretch—to loosen them up. For this, I would recommend a warm-up, which may include stretching in the case of certain sports but is not the same thing (a warm-up is meant to increase blood flow to the muscle, literally warm it up). A warm-up should be repeated movements similar to those one would use in the sport. Or you could simply jog for 5 minutes so that your body gradually gets used to movement.
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Whether the warm-up involves stretches will depend on the kind of sport you intend to play. In gymnastics, for instance, your warm-up would obviously involve a lot more stretching than, say, cricket or hockey. But do it slowly.
When to stretch?
Pre-exercise stretching is, in most cases, a waste of time. Indeed, it can injure you. In a systematic review of controlled trials, published in British Medical Journal in August 2002, Rob D. Herbert and Michael Gabriel, from the University of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, concluded: “Stretching before or after exercising does not confer protection from muscle soreness. Stretching before exercising does not seem to confer a practically useful reduction in the risk of injury”. They quoted two studies on army recruits in military training, which showed that stretching before exercise insignificantly reduced injury risk by around 1%. The authors, therefore, concluded that the average subject would need to stretch for 23 years to prevent one injury.
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However, in an accompanying editorial, Domhnall MacAuley, from The Queen’s University of Belfast, and Thomas M. Best, from the University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, point out that a great deal in sport and exercise medicine is not supported by research evidence. “Stretching is long established as one of the fundamental principles in athletic care... Sport is rife with pseudoscience, and it is difficult to disentangle the evangelical enthusiasm of the locker room from research evidence,” they write.
So, when can stretching be useful? It can be useful for stiffness and treatment of certain injuries (gently, and under supervision), and is sometimes beneficial after sports to combat soreness (it may seem to make it better, but there hasn’t been any evidence that stretching or not actually makes a difference to soreness or pain.)
Which way to stretch?
Static stretching is practised by the majority of people with the objective of priming muscles. This does not help; in fact, it weakens the muscles. Studies have shown that athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.
Dynamic stretching works better, if at all a sportsperson wants to do stretches beforehand. In games such as gymnastics and golf, where the motions of the game itself involve stretching, it can increase power, flexibility and range of motion—but only if done gently and correctly.
The author is a practitioner of musculoskeletal medicine and sports and exercise medicine. He is also CEO and medical director of Back 2 Fitness.
Write to him at email@example.com