Does Stretching Work for Injury Prevention or Performance?

by Paul Rogers on October 30, 2008

If you’ve been involved in any sort of physical activity for fitness or sports, you probably know that ‘stretching’ is highly recommended for the following reasons:

  • Increase or maintain flexibility to prevent injury and increase mobility for day-to-day living
  • Prevent injury during sports and exercise activity
  • Increase performance in sport
  • Offset muscle soreness after exercise

It seems to make sense doesn’t it? You feel that muscle let go and you think to yourself: “if only that muscle was a little more flexible, that would not have happened.”

The trouble is, much of the value of stretching got taken for granted over many decades and few scientific studies were undertaken to confirm what everyone assumed was correct: you must stretch.

Now, some of that scientific work on stretching has been done and it’s not quite as simple as logic would have us believe.

Maintain flexibility

To cut to the chase, stretching on a regular basis, perhaps daily, seems to be a good idea for everyone. Regular stretching probably has benefits for increased mobility, balance and injury prevention, especially as we age.

Prevent injury during exercise and sports

While regular stretching of various types may help athletes overall, stretching before or after an event or workout has mixed support for injury prevention, which I’m sure comes as a surprise to many. We all do it in some form because it makes us feel ready to compete. Benefits may be more psychological than physical. However, some recent review studies have been more positive, especially in relation to muscle-tendon injuries. Inadequate study design and confusion of the terms ‘stretching’ and ‘warmup’ seems to have confounded much of the early science.

Enhance performance

Static stretching, it seems, may even impair performance in power sports like sprinting and jumping by interfering with optimum stretch-shortening cycle. It’s best not to confuse static stretching with warmups, in which dynamic stretching probably has a place.

On the other hand, some sports like gymnastics and dance require extreme flexibility and the same rules may not apply.

Overall, static, passive of PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation ) stretching close to your sport or activity — before or after — seems to have little going for it in relation to performance benefit.

Prevent muscle soreness

Soreness after an exercise session is called ‘delayed-onset muscle soreness’ or DOMS. Stretching before or after exercise has long been recommended as a way to reduce or prevent soreness. However, a review of studies in this area did not find any benefit from stretching for the prevention of muscle soreness. Warming up is something different and has more calculable benefits.

Summary of stretching

In summary, the best advice seems to be that we maintain a regular stretching program from day to day, warm up sufficiently before exercise and sport, including some dynamic stretches — leg swings, arm swings are a good example — then warm down with some further stretches, but don’t expect that either performance or muscle soreness will benefit from static stretching at exercise time.

I’m certain this will be debated for many years to come.

- Small K, Mc Naughton L, Matthews M. A systematic review into the efficacy of static stretching as part of a warm-up for the prevention of exercise-related injury. Res Sports Med. 2008 Jul-Sep;16(3):213-31.
– Hart L. Effect of stretching on sport injury risk: a review. Clin J Sport Med. 2005 Mar;15(2):113.
– Herbert RD, de Noronha M. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Oct 17;(4):CD004577. Review.

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