How do you warm up before an athletic event? Do you jog? Stretch? Perform agility drills? All of the above? I want to let you in on a little secret. One of the steps of a “typical” warm up routine is not as necessary as the other ones. Many people are surprised to learn that the answer to this riddle is stretching.
Don’t get me wrong, stretching after working out promotes flexibility and “cools down” the muscles after intense tearing down and rebuilding sessions. The real killer is what we call static stretching, stretching done on “cold” muscles (the state of your muscles before you exercise).
This biological phenomenon has been argued in literature for decades. Many recent findings have come to the consensus that low intensity sports, such as running, cycling, and swimming, require participants to undergo fewer stretch-shortening cycles, the amount of time the muscle takes to stretch and shorten during a contraction. Static stretching actually makes the tendon-muscle motor unit more compliant, which in turn produces a higher demand in energy release and absorption than the unit’s capacity. Overstretching, can have the reverse effect and make the tendon tighter as a mechanism of “self-defense”. In other words, moderate static stretching is the key to flexibility, not injury-prevention.
One of the most well-known studies was funded by USA Track and Field (USATF), the national governing body of the sport. The study involved approximately 1500 competitive runners, between the ages of 13 and 60, who were randomly assigned to two groups. Both groups were then instructed to conduct the same warm-up regimen (one group with stretching and the other without) and same mileage over a period of three months. The stretching group was instructed to perform five different stretches that targeted the calves, hamstrings, and quadriceps, holding each for twenty seconds.
As running is a high injury sport, there were many volunteers who acquired some type of injury, what researchers defined as “missing training for at least three days”. Approximately 16% of the non-stretching group became injured at the end of the three months. 16% of the stretching group became injured as well. The results are astonishing. This study disproved the value of static stretching in showing that it is not a factor in preventing athletic injury.
USATF uncovered one of the most heavily debated topics in the athletic community. In a sense, their research study proved that stretching has no effect on the injury rate of a wide range of competitive athletes. So why do so many people still stretch?
Witvrouw, E, et al. “Stretching and Injury Prevention: an Obscure Relationship.” NCBI, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Reynolds, Gretchen. “Phys Ed: Does Stretching Before Running Prevent Injuries?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Sept. 2010.