A couple of years ago I stumbled across an article in a sports medicine journal reporting that it had been almost conclusively proved that stretching does not prevent sports injuries. My initial reaction was firstly indignation and then, in all honesty, slight embarrassment. Along with almost every other health and fitness professional I had been extolling the importance of stretching before exercise and sport for many years. Then my mind wandered back to the cumulative hours of stretching I’d done during my years of weekly football training and games at Curtis Oval, in the suburbs of Sydney. They turn out to be nothing more than precious moments of my life that were wasted!! Hmmmph. I always knew our coach didn’t know anything about fitness or football – how else could he have left me on the bench in the ’84 Grand Final?
After the shock had subsided I looked into the article further and there it was a literature review of several previous studies on stretching virtually all coming to the conclusion that people who stretched before starting a game of sport had no decrease in incidence of injuries over those who did not stretch before the game. Researcher Dr Rob Herbert, a physiotherapist from the University of Sydney, stated that the belief that stretching reduced injury first came to prominence in the 1960s. “The theory was that muscles were more likely to spasm and tear if they were suddenly called into vigorous action,” he says. “But like many good ideas, the muscle spasm theory of muscle soreness was wrong and has since been discredited, but the practice of stretching before exercise persists.”
I was already familiar with a similar study proving that pre and/or post exercise stretching did not prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is the achy muscles experienced after a bout of exercise that is greater than our body is accustomed to, such as our first game of sport or exercise back from a long break. DOMS peak at 48 hours post-exercise and subside soon after. Massage, ice, heat, salt baths and Jacuzzis were also proved to be ineffective. Apart from not exercising at an increased intensity, the only thing which was proven to decrease DOMS was to do the same amount of exercise again at which time our body will have adapted and be more prepared for the exercise. The only way to prevent soreness is to get soreness or if you like; get on with it.
So if stretching does not prevent injury or prevent DOMS is it a complete waste of time? Well let’s take a look at the evidence a little closer. Firstly the review did not look at the importance of warming up, which is often confused with stretching. Warming up is still universally considered essential to redistribute the blood flow towards the muscles which area about to be used. This has been shown by several studies to be effective in preventing injuries. Warming up should involve some form of low intensity movement that resembles the activity for which you are about to perform.
The literature review only assessed the effect on stretching done immediately before and after exercise, without considering if a person has been undertaking a regular stretching program during the week. A flexible person may indeed be less likely to suffer an injury than an inflexible one. We can’t expect to sit down for 120 hours a week, do a 10 second stretch on a few muscle groups before our weekly game of sport and expect to be exempt from the sins of the rest of the week and guaranteed an injury free experience.
So we need to stretch regularly away from our sports endeavors, and unfortunately those of us who are naturally inflexible need to work even harder on these stretches to improve our flexibility. Often the people who are attracted to regular stretching and yoga are naturally flexible and can even experience troubles by being too flexible, particularly with shoulder and ankle problems. When it comes to flexibility and most aspects of health, I reckon the Buddhists seem to have it right when they talk about the middle of the road being the best possible way of being, or whatever is they believe.
To sum up
Before trying big jumps and deep powder, do an easy warm up run down the main slope – if you’re an early bird that may even be through powder!
When you stretch you should be aiming for an improvement in muscle length so hold your stretches for around 30 seconds and try and increase the stretch while breathing out.
Feel free to continue to stretch before exercise but remember it does not guarantee that you’ll be safe
If you are inflexible stretch for a few minutes each day, the morning is preferable (it’s a great way to start the day and makes you feel good that you’ve done it for the whole day).
See a personal trainer or physiotherapist who can assess your flexibility in a number of areas and give you a program to address your weaknesses.
So next time you arrive ten minutes late for your aerobics class and the instructor won’t let you in because you haven’t done the stretching segment, you can tell them that you did yours in the morning!