Stretching is important, but it depends what you’re stretching for and what your goals are. When you’re committing to a stretching routine it is important to accept that there are a lot of things to take into consideration. For instance a dancers stretching routine would look a lot different to that of an individual focusing on sporting performance. In this case we’ll take sporting performance as the overall goal.
The effect of stretching on sporting performance is very complex. Most studies have focused ontwo factors that are likely to affect sporting performance: flexibility and the ability of muscles to generate force.
To understand the effects of stretching on flexibility and muscle force generation, it’s necessary to distinguish its acute and chronic effects. Acute effects manifest immediately after a stretch whereas chronic effects manifest only after repeated sessions of stretching, perhaps over months or years.
Stretching acutely increases flexibility: after just a few seconds or a few minutes of stretching, joints move further and resist movement less. But this effect is short lived. Once the stretching stops, flexibility returns to pre-stretch levels. Recovery is largely complete within a few minutes of finishing the stretch.
It’s possible, but less certain, that stretching also has chronic effects on flexibility. Regular stretching could stimulate adaptations of muscles and other tissues that bring about lasting increases in flexibility.
A prime example would be dancers and yoga teachers, who stretch a lot, tend to be more flexible than the rest of us including athletes. But, while it seems obvious that regular stretching makes people more flexible, it has proved remarkably difficult to demonstrate that in controlled experiments.
Stretching does make people tolerate stretching more. That is, it makes people feel able to get into more stretched positions. Thisincrease in stretch tolerance may make people feel more flexible even when they’re not.
Either way, the effects of stretching on flexibility – acute or chronic – could be exploited to enhance performance of some sports. It seems likely that hurdlers or gymnasts, for instance, could perform better if they were more flexible. More generally, it appears likely that stretching could increase performance in sports that require flexibility.
The other way stretching could affect sporting performance is through its effects on the ability of muscles to produce force. The clearest conclusion that arises from studies on humans is that stretching typically produces a small, temporary reduction in the strength of stretched muscles. This suggests it may be unwise to stretch muscles immediately prior to sport if it requires generation of large muscle forces (think field/court based athletes who need to change direction often and quickly – explosive movements).
To Stretch or Not To Stretch?
While it appears that stretching doesn’t appreciably reduce risk of injury, there’s good evidence that warming up does.
Warming up for an activity/sport has been shown to have psychological links between mind and body as you’re getting into a mental and physical state that better prepares you for what you’re about to do (what the mind thinks, the body will follow).
An intensive, well-structured, active warm-up can substantially reduce risk of injury (thinkmore dynamic stretching) prior to your workout, and put some time aside to stretch(think more static stretching with foam rolling)after as your body will thank you in the long run.