Along with almost every other health professional, I was educated to extoll the importance of stretching before exercise and also to use it as a main go-to treatment for several types of injuries. However, over the past few years there have been several studies showing that stretching may not reduce injury rates at all. Shock. Horror Tell me it can’t be so! Aside from all the times I’d told people to stretch I was taken back to the many cumulative hours of stretching I’d done during my years of weekly football training and games at Curtis Oval, in the suburbs of Sydney. They turn out to be nothing more than precious moments of my life that were wasted!! Hmmmph. I always knew our coach didn’t know anything about health, fitness or football – how else could he have left me on the bench in the ’84 Grand Final?
The belief that stretching reduce injury first came to prominence in the 1960s. The theory was that muscles were more likely to spasm if they were suddenly called into vigorous action from rest. But like many good ideas, the muscle spasm theory of muscle soreness was proven false and has since been discredited, but the practice of stretching before exercise persists.
There have been several studies showing that pre-and/or post-exercise stretching do not prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is the achy muscles experienced after a bout of exercise that is greater than our body is accustomed to, such as our first game of sport or exercise back form a long break. DOMS peak at 48 hours’ post-exercise and subside soon after. Massage, ice, heat, salt baths and Jacuzzis also proved to be ineffective. Apart from not exercising at an increased intensity, the only thing which was proven to decrease DOMS was to do the same amount of exercise again, at which time our body will have adapted and be more able to cope with the exercise. The only way to prevent soreness is to get soreness or if you like; get on with it.
If stretching does not prevent injury or prevent DOMS – is it a complete waste of time? Well let’s take a look at the evidence a little closer. Firstly, the review did not look at the importance of warming up, which is often confused with stretching. Warming up is still universally considered essential to redistribute the blood flow from other areas such as digestive system and towards the muscles that are about to be used. This has been shown by several studies to be effective in preventing injuries. Warming up should involve some form of low intensity movement that resembles the activity for which you are about to perform. So for skiers and boarders in Niseko, do an easy run first thing in the morning, don’t be afraid to walk to the first lift, and stay on the ground during your first run or two, as muscles need to be performing at their best to absorb the landing from a jump.
In addition, studies only assessed the effect on stretching done immediately before and after exercise, without considering if a person has been undertaking a regular stretching program during the week. A flexible person may indeed be less likely to suffer an injury than an inflexible one. We can’t expect to sit down for 120 hours a week, do a 10 second stretch on a few muscle groups before our weekly game of sport and expect to be guaranteed an injury free experience.
Unfortunately, those of us who are naturally inflexible need to work even harder on these stretches to improve our flexibility. Often the people who are attracted to regular stretching and yoga are naturally flexible and can even experience troubles by being too flexible, particularly with shoulder and ankle problems. When it comes to flexibility and most aspects of health, I reckon the Buddhists seem to have it right when they talk about the middle of the road being the best possible way of being.
Bevan Colless is the owner of Asia Physio