Stretching is a common exercise performed by athletes before a game. It is also frequently prescribed by health professionals as part of rehabilitation following an injury. However, stretching recommendations can be clouded by misconceptions and conflicting results from studies. This short discussion aims to give a brief overview of what stretching does and the current evidence behind the supposed benefits of stretching; mainly reducing risk of injury and enhancing sports performance.
What does stretching do?
Stretching increases the range of motion around a joint by having effects on the muscle, tendon and other connective tissues around the joint. Most people think of stretching as part of a warm up routine before engaging in exercise. However, stretching can also be done on a regular basis.
Stretching as part of sport
Stretching in a warm up has been advocated as a way to reduce the risk of injury. However, there is now strong clinical evidence that suggests that stretching immediately before sport does not prevent or reduce the risk of injury. In fact, overstretching a muscle can even have a detrimental effect on immediate sporting performance. Stretching has been shown to decrease force and power output by between 2-5% when completed immediately prior to exercise. This doesn’t seem a lot, but if your sport depends on these factors then it may effect your performance.
So you’re saying don’t warm up?
This does not mean that warming up is not important. A warm up based around gradually increasing intensity to lift heart rate, sport specific movements, and dynamic stretching has been shown to be protective against injury. The Fifa 11+ program is the most well known of these types of warm ups. Other sports are now producing their own versions including NetballSmart by NZ Netball and The Coaching Toolbox by NZ Rugby.. The IOC has put out an app “Get Set” that has been designed by some of the foremost injury prevention researches in the world. It has warm up routines for many sports that have been shown to decrease the risk of injury by up to 50%.
Stretching as part of injury rehabilitation
The effects of stretching on recovery following an injury follows a different train of reasoning. In the case of an acute muscle strain, stretching the muscle in the initial phase is contra-indicated as it can prevent muscle healing. However, stretching is indicated at the chronic stage if there is a loss of range of motion in the joint.
So don’t stretch a freshly injured muscle past the point of pain. Also, don’t hold the stretch. Move the muscle through its available pain free range of motion to encourage good scar tissue formation, but not to further disrupt the injured tissue, or to tear the newly forming scar tissue.
So when should I stretch?
Regular stretching completed as part of a complete training program is good. This can help to increase range of motion around a joint, can help to increase performance and may have a preventative effect on injury. Stretching immediately prior to sport as part of a warm up does not seem to be as important as completing a good warm up to prime the body for competition. Stretching as part of a warm down has not been shown to decrease muscle soreness. Stretching an injured muscle particularly in the early phase of recovery may cause more harm than good.
Get into a good routine of regular stretching. But when it comes time for sport, warm up well, in a sport specific way, and you will give yourself the best chance of performing well in an injury free environment. If in doubt of when and how to stretch, consult your Motus physiotherapist for advice.