Before you sink your teeth into this post, I must warn you that this article serves as a bit of a myth buster. For decades, centuries even, people have preached that stretching is a must-do before and after exercise and sport performance, but this common suggestion seems to be based more on abstract assumption than proven science. Recent studies have not only been inconclusive, but in fact they go on to debunk a lot of the myths around stretching and performance.
Stretching has been known in the sports and fitness world for a long time as a common tool for injury prevention, reduction of muscle soreness and performance, but have you ever stopped to wonder what evidence backs up these claims? Digging deeper into this topic, I was surprised what I found. I was always of the opinion that stretching helped, especially with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). But studies have actually shown little to no benefit in terms of muscle soreness or injury prevention.
First of all, let’s define stretching. By definition, stretching is an array of passive and active movements used to increase flexibility. That, we can’t argue with. It’s been scientifically proven that stretching increases flexibility, as static stretching elongates a muscle to a gentle (and it should be gentle) point of tension and when held for a duration, will significantly increase flexibility over time. Many studies have concluded that 30 seconds is the sweet spot, and that there’s no additional advantage to holding stretches any longer than that. While all this is well and good, it’s important to note that increased flexibility does not equate to increased performance. In fact, it’s quite the opposite for most exercises.
An interesting study was conducted on endurance runners and the results are fascinating and in hindsight, not at all surprising. When surveying elite endurance runners, studies showed that the elite runner is less flexible than their non-elite counterpart. Going a bit further into this, the researches found a common denominator, the gene COL5A1, which is associated with inflexibility was present in athletes with impressive running economies that wasn’t present in the lower performing subsection of the group. In short, stiffer muscles and lower range of motion (decreased flexibility) is actually a lot better for long distance running than being super flexible. This has to do with stiffer muscles leading to stabilization in the pelvic region, ultimately resulting in less energy expenditure required to stabilize muscular activity while running. Most researches now agree that acute stretching, meaning a single bout of stretching immediately before long distance running can actually hinder performance. For endurance runners, it’s recommended to do low intensity progressive cardio as their warm and completely remove stretching from their warm up regime. Regular, long term static stretching done separately from training will increase flexibility and range of motion over time, but it is not linked to increased performance and in fact is linked to decreased performance for elite athletes.
With regards to muscle soreness, many recent studies have concluded, surprisingly, that stretching has little to no influence on the duration and intensity of muscle soreness post-exercise and that low intensity cardio cool downs, massage, foam rolling and hot/cold therapy are actually more effective. DOMS happens as a result of muscle spasm, and up until recently, stretching was thought to reduce blood flow to the muscle, ultimately stopping the pain caused by the spasm. However, researchers have recently found that acute stretching actually has very little impact and though marginal improvements have been noted in certain studies, the results aren’t conclusive enough to recommend stretching as an effective tool against muscle soreness.
So, in terms of performance and reduction of muscle soreness, acute stretching (stretching immediately before exercise), is actually more likely to hinder than help. In terms of injury prevention, there is something that could be said for regular stretching (meaning, static stretching regularly, not associated with your intense exercise), will improve flexibility and range of motion and can help to reduce the likelihood of injuries related to muscle strains. However, it’s important to take note of the difference between acute and regular stretching. Acute stretching, stretching immediately before exercise is not going to help – but long term regular stretching will increase overall flexibility which will inherently reduce the chances of muscle strains.
If flexibility is your goal, especially if you’re a yogi or a gymnast with no interest in endurance running or other high intensity training, then yes – stretching will definitely help you achieve your goals. Otherwise, be careful to avoid acute stretching before heavy bouts of exercise and instead, incorporate regular static stretching into your routine either after or completely separate from your training. Instead of stretching, experts recommend a short, active warm up like 10-15 minutes of low intensity cardio as a pre-cursor to a workout instead of stretching.