Stretching is a drag.
It takes time away from activities we enjoy, most athletes regard it as boring, and it actually harms athletic performance. This is true of athletes of varying abilities and sports. The myth that you can prevent injury or improve performance by stretching for 7 – 12 minutes before or after a workout is still maddeningly common. It needs to be put to rest.
This is not to denounce all forms of stretching under all circumstances (for instance, Yoga). The intent here is to throw a pie in the face of conventional stretching. Stretching with the purpose of preparing for or recovering from a workout is about as beneficial as those comical fat-jiggling machines.
There are at least three reasons why traditional stretching doesn’t work:
First, stretching for more than a few seconds reduces blood flow to the muscles being stretched. Whether you are preparing for or recovering from exercise, you usually want to promote blood flow. This is supported by most athletic organizations including the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which I’m certified through.
Second, research shows that static stretching before exercise harms performance in many sports. This is because stretching temporarily reduces muscular strength, reaction time, and agility. Imagine taking a spring-loaded machine and stretching the springs before putting it to work. The machine won’t be able to produce the same force at the same speed, nor will your body. The most bizarre defense I’ve seen for the pre-exercise stretching routine is that by reducing your athletic edge you’re also reducing your risk of injury. Try telling that to an athlete!
Finally, stretching routines take time away from activities that are known to both improve performance and prevent injury. More on that in a moment.
But doesn’t muscle tightness cause injury?
All this isn’t to say that muscle tightness doesn’t ever contribute to injury—the point is that stretching is an ineffective way to manage that risk. When a muscle is too tight, this is often because it is compensating for weakness in another muscle. Tightness may also be because of other issues such as poor postural habits. It is never for lack of stretching specifically.
Stacy Ingraham, Pd.D. is an exercise physiologist at the University of Minnesota. Among other things, she instructs a for-credit marathon training course. Decades of experience training runners as well as her own research confirms that stretching just doesn’t do the trick:
“The reality is that functional range of motion is what is required to illicit the best movement patterns in sport. Anything beyond that is counter-productive specific to performance. Increased laxity beyond function is a major contributor to injury, not lack of flexibility. I strongly believe that static stretching has no value in the performance arena. I think the literature specific to this is pretty clear.”
The best way to avoid injury varies by sport, but you can’t go wrong with a dynamic warm up, agility drills, core stability exercises, and strength training.
- Mat Pilates and planks are excellent ways to strengthen the core. They won’t place too much stress on the spine and will benefit running form and other activities.
- Do strength training as a stand-alone workout. Exercises like squats, bridges, step-ups, and single-leg squats benefit joint health and overall performance. That said, these exercises are often done incorrectly. If you aren’t sure what you’re doing, seek the guidance of a trainer or knowledgeable friend.
- A warm up ideally ought to include dynamic stretching and other drills. Even if you’re just going on a run you want the muscles involved in lateral (sideways) movement to be relaxed and “awake.” Cariocas are a good example because they get your glutes and calves working.
- Adding light calisthenics and form drills to your warm up will prepare you for peak performance. Body weight squats, high knees, and reverse sprints get the quads, hip flexors, and hamstrings firing.
Brian Lebo, CSCS is Director of Strength and Conditioning at the Athletic Performance Training Center in Cleveland. His experience further supports this approach:
“I do feel that this idea [static stretching] has largely been debunked. Much of the ‘pro’ information I have seen—in favor of pre-exercise stretching—is editorialized and anecdotal. … I have personally seen performance improvement and reduced adverse events—especially cramping—when switching athletes and teams from pre-activity static stretching to dynamic warm-up.”
So focus on things that help your performance and they will often serve the benefit of preventing injury as well. Stretching is a drag. So skip it.