Stretching – Timing is Everything

Stretching has long been known to improve muscular flexibility and joint range of motion and is considered an integral part of any fitness routine. Gym teachers and coaches have taught us that stretching before exercise keeps us injury-free and performing at our best.  But does it?

The usefulness of stretching immediately before exercise has become a much-debated topic.  A great deal of research seems to suggest that static stretching, or the type of stretching that most of us are accustomed in which a stretch is held for a sustained time, has been linked to decreases in muscular performance when used immediately before exercise.  These decreases in performance have been observed in explosive type activities such as jumping and sprinting.  After reviewing several hundred articles on the subject, a recent article in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport concluded that pre-exercise stretching induces a short-term negative effect on muscular strength and explosive power.  These reductions were independent of age, gender and athletic ability.

But wait, endurance athletes might not be safe from a similar effect.  Several studies have shown that stretching acutely affects endurance economy, meaning that it takes more muscular energy to run or cycle after pre-exercise stretching.  While it seems like the diminished economy is short-lived, those that stretched before exercise didn’t run or cycle as far.

Researchers theorize that the performance losses in both strength and endurance activity come from changes in the stretched muscle that leave it temporarily less able to produce force.  These changes are small but significant and seem to last for a short period after stretching.  Sports medicine professionals have pointed out that for those athletes whose activities require the extremes of joint range of motion, such as ballet dancers and figure skaters, the improvement in range of motion may outweigh the negative effect of pre-exercise stretching.

What’s more, stretching before exercise doesn’t seem to have any effect on the risk of injury.  Research on both static and general stretching indicate no clear benefit on the overall risk of injury.  There does seem to be a slightly lowered risk of muscular injury with static stretching.  Additionally, stretching has been shown to be a beneficial for those recovering from injury.

However with stretching, as with many things, timing is everything.  While experts have concluded that stretching immediately before exercise results in diminished performance, a regular stretching program, performed after exercise, does not decrease muscular performance and can even be beneficial to performance.  Several studies have found improvements in speed and jump height with regular stretching.  Additionally, if there were a protective effect of stretching, it would seem to result from a regular stretching program.

So what should you do before your next run, race or basketball game?  Although static stretching is the wrong answer, a sport-specific warm-up is not.  A general warm-up such as light jogging followed by a sport specific one can improve performance in explosive and endurance sports.  Not surprisingly, well trained cyclists performed significantly better after a warm-up, regardless of intensity.

So unless you are a ballet dancer or gymnast, save the stretching for after the workout and spend your time warming-up instead.