Most sportsmen include some form of stretching in their training programme. However many questions remained unanswered in regards to the topic of stretching. For example- when is the best time to stretch, what type of stretching is best and most importantly, why do we need to stretch at all?
When I asked a group of my patients why they think stretching is important, I got the following 3 answers: Stretching is important:
1) To prevent injury
2) To maximize performance
3) To prevent or reduce post exercise stiffness
The question is: does stretching really achieve these goals?
It is not surprising that when one looks to the literature conflicting information is found. Some papers site that stretching is the answer to all our problems while others state that stretching is not at all useful and can actually hinder performance. So what is it: Should one stretch or not?
Picture 1: Static Hamstring Stretch
Before we answer the above questions, lets first define 2 types of stretches that are generally used by sportsmen. The first is static stretching. Static stretching is used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest. It is composed of holding a position while gradually lengthening a muscle (see Pictures 1). The second is Dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is a form of stretching utilizing momentum in an effort to propel the muscle into an extended range of motion (see Picture 2).
Picture 2: Dynamic Hamstring Stretch
Preventing injury is the most common reason given for stretching. The most common injuries sustained in running are overuse injuries. Overuse injuries result from repetitive microtrauma without significant rest time to allow recovery. The literature states that stretching has no effect in the prevention of overuse injuries. However it should be noted that stretching may have some effect in reducing the risk of muscle strains during exercise.
In response to point number 2- does stretching enhance performance? Static stretching does not. In fact, according to an excellent study by Simic et al 2012, static stretching of more than 45 s performed during a warm up before exercise may have a negative effect on maximal muscular strength and explosive muscular performance. Dynamic stretching however, has no detrimental effect on performance and may even improve it. Therefore dynamic stretches are the ones to perform during your pre exercise warm up.
This doesn’t mean there is no role for static stretching. Static stretching is very important as it can help to achieve permanent changes in flexibility, range of movement and muscle compliance. All individuals should include static stretching in their overall training programmes, just not before training workouts or competitions.
Lastly the question remains, does stretching help to prevent or reduce muscle stiffness post exercise? The short answer is no. Literature on this topic is quite clear. A recent systematic review published from the British Journal of Sports Medicine indicates that stretching reduces muscle soreness to such a small degree that it is not clinically significant.
So in conclusion, static stretches should be done frequently but not before you train or compete. Dynamic stretches are useful to do during your warm up and neither static or dynamic stretching is going to take away that post exercise muscle ache!
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