Until recently, stretching and exercise came as one: everyone knew that limbering up your muscles before training, and then stretching afterwards, was the most effective way to ward off injury and prepare for the task at hand. But the advancement of sports science since the turn of the century has given rise to a wealth of research proving that stretching – particularly the traditional hold-for-30-seconds approach – can actually be detrimental to performance.
Static Vs. Dynamic
First, a distinction: there are two types of stretch – static and dynamic. Tom Goom is a physiotherapist and founder of Running Physio; he defines static stretching as: ‘moving into a stretch position and holding, usually for 10-60 seconds.’ Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, is: ‘moving into positions of stretch but not holding them.’
‘If you think of the muscle as a spring, you want that spring to have a certain amount of tightness’
Static stretching, particularly prior to exercise, should be treated with caution, Goom says, because it reduces strength and power performance. ‘That’s because of the effect it has on the muscle. You want the muscle and tendon to produce a certain amount of stiffness. If you think of the muscle as being like a spring, you want that spring to have a certain amount of tightness to it, in order to produce power. So, if you stretch the muscle and it has the immediate effect of making the muscle less stiff – less powerful – then that’s going to have a negative effect on your performance.’
Ben Barwick, coach at Full Potential, agrees: ‘There’s absolutely no point in doing long static stretching before exercise, because it’s just going to reduce your power output.’
But there’s also a more serious implication – one that suggests static stretching is not only unnecessary, but also damaging. ‘Imagine a cold muscle is like cold Plasticine,’ Barwick says. ‘When you try to bend it, it cracks.’ In other words, a cold muscle is not ready to be stretched, and doing so can lead to injury.
All this suggests that, contrary to belief, stretching is an ineffective way to both warm up and prevent injury. In fact, a 2014 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded just about every method for preventing injury was effective to some extent… except for stretching.
Each To Their Own
Both Barwick and Goom, however, are keen to stress that there can be no universal advice. ‘It really is an individual thing,’ says Barwick. ‘Some people I coach need to stretch religiously and others need to do next to nothing.’ The question you should ask yourself is not, “have I stretched?” but, “are my muscles warmed up enough?”
And Goom sees a need for people to be far more focused in their methods: ‘For so long, there’s been a one-size-fits-all approach to stretching that everyone should stretch and everyone should stretch these muscles, but actually it’s more about looking at the individual and seeing where they are tight. They might have really tight calf muscles, for example, and want to do work on lengthening those, or tight hamstrings or tight hip flexors. What needs work depends on the individual.’
Steve Way is a marathon runner and former Commonwealth Games athlete: ‘Post-run, I’ll do five minutes’ worth,’ he says, “and I’ll only stretch the things I know need stretching: my hamstrings and glutes. In the eight years I’ve been running, I’ve never stretched my quads, simply because I’ve never had any problems with my quads. It’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”’
And for a pre-run warm-up, Way’s approach is refreshingly simple: ‘All I do is slower running at the start of the run,’ he says. ‘All of my easy or steady runs are progressions. I always start off, relative to my steady pace, very slowly.’
‘Eccentric strength exercises, on the other hand, add new coils to that spring’
His progressive approach to warming up makes sense when you look to other areas of training. If you’re weight lifting, for example, one or two warm-up sets of your chosen exercise – with a much lighter load than your “working weight” – is going to be far more effective at priming your target muscles, and ensuring they’re ready for the main event, than a few half-hearted stretches. Taking the bench press as an example, you would perform one to two warm-up sets with 40-50% of the weight you intend to lift – maintaining perfect form and completing the same number of reps as in your working sets.
But what about those of us who aren’t professional athletes – whose bodies creak and groan at the start of every session?
One final approach, advocated by Goom, suggests stretching, but in strengthening. ‘We’re starting to use eccentric strengthening for improved range of movement. This involves exercises with the muscle in a stretched position, with focus on lengthening the muscle tissue. In the deadlift, for example, you lean forward to lower the weight and your hamstrings lengthen to enable the movement.’
Again, the coiled spring analogy is useful here: ‘When stretching, you stretch the spring out and, within 30 minutes, it goes back to its normal length. Eccentric strength exercises, on the other hand, add new coils to that spring.’ In other words, they add strength, length and mobility, as shown in this study that concludes “eccentric training can not only improve strength and reduce the risk of injury, but also facilitate increased muscle flexibility.”
The notion that stretching – dynamic or otherwise – is absolutely necessary for reducing injury risk and boosting performance is becoming increasingly outdated. Especially because, as Goom says, ‘80% of injuries are the result of training error: people pushing themselves too hard.’ No amount of stretching can prevent that; instead, the emphasis should be on longer term strengthening and greater awareness of how your body is feeling.
WHAT NEXT? Strengthen and mobilise your muscles with these eccentric exercises:
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.