It’s common to see people stretching before going for a run or working out in the weight room. The belief is that this will help make muscles more flexible and therefore prevent injury during a workout. But is this true?
Today, despite long-held traditions of starting a training session with a bout of stretching, evidence from robust clinical research is clear: pre-exercise stretching does not reduce the risk of injury in endurance athletes such as runners or cyclists nor does it enhance performance.
Instead of stretching before a workout, there is emerging evidence that a structured warm-up program consisting of strength and neuromuscular control exercises can reduce the risk of overuse injuries according to a study in Clinical Sports Medicine.
A structured warm-up program begins with range-of-motion movements of the major joints of the body. This increases the temperature of the soft tissues surrounding the joints and promotes increased mobility. Joint movement also optimizes the quality of synovial fluid within the joint, which serves as a lubricant and shock absorber.
Following the initial mobility work, a warm-up routine should then focus on strengthening exercises for key muscles required for proper technique in the activity about to be undertaken. For example, runners should work to maintain strong gluteus medius muscles to avoid excessive hip drop and inward collapse of the knee.
Optimizing technique should be the basis of every warm-up routine. With this in mind, having a thorough understanding of ones’ biomechanical deficiencies is critical to individualizing that routine. For runners, this may include a gait analysis with a biomechanics expert and a strength and movement evaluation with a physiotherapist.
In sports that require extremes of joint mobility, stretching is a fundamental aspect of improving performance. For example, a hockey goalie needs to cover both sides of the net and long hip adductor muscles are part of what allows this flexibility. Similarly, stretching can help a sprinter maximize stride length to improve speed. However, stretching does not have a significant impact on performance in endurance sports like cycling and distance running, which do not require extreme joint range of motion.
Training is a precise balance of loading and recovery to improve performance. If recovery can be optimized, then loading can be increased and performance gains enhanced.
Stretching has been found to have a positive effect on recovery. It provides structural benefits by helping to relax hypertonic muscles post-exercise. It also provides a calming environment in which to de-stress after training or competition.
Stretching should be done immediately following exercise at a mild to moderate intensity level. For the purpose of recovery, long-hold stretches (30-90 seconds) of the major muscles groups are most beneficial.
Next time you’re heading out for a run or a workout, don’t waste time stretching. Instead warm up your joints and muscles through range of motion movements to get your body ready for the task ahead.