To Stretch Or Not To Stretch
Stretching has traditionally been an integral part of pre-game and practice warm-up routines. Today, most coaches employ a multimodal warm-up routine, that is, aerobic exercise (running), stretching, and ballistic (bouncing or hopping) movements. The conventional wisdom behind stretching is that it helps prepare the muscles for maximum effort, and helps to prevent injuries. However, recent reviews of published research have concluded that stretching is likely to be detrimental to maximum muscle performance. The European College of Sports Sciences published a position statement in 2006 that concluded that there was firm evidence that pre-exercise stretching could diminish maximum muscle effort in sport.
So why should young athletes stretch?
There is good evidence that pre-exercise stretching helps prevent muscle injuries. While muscle “pulls” are not as common in young athletes as in adult athletes, there certainly are several common conditions among young athletes that are directly related to having tight muscles, including patellofemoral dysfunction, Osgood-Schlatter apophysitis, Sever apophysitis, snapping hip, and iliotibial band (IT) syndrome. Athletes with tight muscles might avoid these injuries by stretching regularly.
Naturally, it is not practical for a coach to determine which of his players have tight muscles and which don’t. The solution is to have everyone stretch.
An article published in this month’s issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reviewed the best available data on whether stretching inhibits muscle performance. They found the strongest evidence that static (not moving) stretches lasting 60 seconds or more were most likely to inhibit maximum muscle force. On the other hand, muscle stretches lasting less than 45 seconds did not carry a significant risk of decreasing strength, power or speed.
The problem with all of this research, as usual, is that little or no research has looked at the effect of stretching on young (<18 years) athletes.
Nevertheless, based on the evidence, the following recommendations can be made:
- Static (not bouncing) stretches lasting less than 45 seconds may be used as part of a warm-up routine without risk of diminishing or inhibiting muscle performance.
- Stretching before exercise may reduce the risk of injury.
- Athletes with tight muscles should stretch more often than more flexible athletes; the more often a person stretches, the quicker they will become more flexible.
- Athletes being treated for injuries related to tight muscles should stretch 2-3 times a day as directed by their physician or therapist.
- Stretching to the point of pain is never a good idea; stretching should feel good.
- Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Effect of acute static stretch on muscle performance: a systematic review. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2012; 44(1):154-164