We live in an environment where everything seems to be governed by time. As a result, it’s often our interests and hobbies that seem to take the brunt of these time restrictions. For example, many office workers choose to utilise their lunch hour to hit the gym. This sixty minute window is massively precious and when you subtract travel time and getting changed you haven’t got time for much else other than exercise. So where does stretching fit into all this?
Prior to your chosen sporting activity, do you allow yourself time to prepare for the task ahead? Does this involve a period of stretching? Do you know how effective your stretching routine is for the task you are about to face? This article attempts to answer these questions and more, so that you, the athlete, can best devise and plan your time effectively.
Regardless of whether you’re an international athlete or a Sunday league footballer, many individuals associated with your chosen activity will recommend stretching. Whether this is a team mate, coach or physiotherapist, the message is often the same (ACSM, 1998). But where does this knowledge come from? Have you ever stopped to question it?
Nobody likes the thought of becoming injured. Besides the initial pain and discomfort, it can cause additional stresses and strains on your social, working and family life. However, previous research suggests that stretching might not be the solution to this commonly occurring sporting problem. Herbert and Gabriel (2002) concluded that stretching prior to physical activity did not prevent muscular soreness nor did it prevent injury.
It is possible then that stretching might not be an effective means of preventing injury. So what is its purpose? One thing stretching is important for, regardless of the variation selected, is enhancing flexibility. Flexibility can be considered “An intrinsic property of the body tissues that determines range of motion achievable without injury at a joint or group of joints” (Holt et al. 1996).
If stretching enhances flexibility then why can’t stretching and injury prevention be directly linked? Good question. The reason for this is, believe it or not, flexibility might not be a positive a factor like you first imagined. Previous research has failed to establish any significant link between increased flexibility and reduced injury levels (Knapik et al, 1991).
In fact, Knudson et al (2000) went as far as to state that flexibility might even become counterproductive during a sporting performance and hypothesised decrements in muscular performance for up to one hour following a bout of stretching. Is it possible then that over flexibility might also be a significant factor in determining injury potential of an individual?
One major issue with the flexibility argument, which tends to further heap criticism on the ability to prevent injury through stretching, is that it does not account for injury which occurs during a given muscle’s normal range of movement. Previous research into this area of interest is also often full of errors and lack of control, meaning that any cause and effect relationship between stretching and injury prevention is weakened to an insignificant level.
Prior to moving on, it should also be noted that there are numerous factors, besides flexibility, which might determine the injury potential of an individual to a greater extent. These include but are by no means limited to: age, body mass index, fitness level, strength imbalance between significant muscle groups and previous injury (Jones et al, 1993).
In 2004, Thacker et al carried out an extensive review of literature available within this field of interest to determine if stretching had any significant impact on the inherent risk of sports injury.
Their aim was to consider the research available, despite its flaws, and determine whether any cause and effect could be established through the amalgamation of data.
So what did their systematic review reveal, if anything?
The results of the investigative research undertaken echoed that of previous literature. As previously discussed, stretching was demonstrated to significantly enhance the flexibility of any given target muscle or region. Of all the evidence, the PNF stretching was viewed more favourably than other variations; however this was not consistent throughout (Condon et al, 1987).
The investigation also considered the potential negative effects of stretching on injury performance. Within the comprehensive review, stretching was linked with strength, jumping and running decrements; although these were to an insignificant level and were not consistent across the board of investigations considered (Nelson et al, 2001).
Finally, the effects of stretching as a warm-up to prevent injury were contemplated. Collectively, the research indicated that stretching did not prevent muscular soreness nor did it prevent injury potential within an individual. Some independent studies demonstrated a cause and effect relationship between stretching and injury prevention – though these were in the minority, considered sport specific and ultimately proved insignificant (Thacker et al, 2004).
So what does this mean for you, the athlete? In a nutshell, there is insufficient evidence to promote or discount the benefits of stretching as a viable method of preventing injury within any given activity. From a research perspective, this popular topic of research is likely to remain inconclusive until the strength of such research is enhanced.
If the relationship between stretching and injury prevention is unknown, is there any point in carrying out stretching prior to physical activity? This really is the million dollar question. Given the results illustrated within this article, the answer to this question is likely to vary amongst individuals and their chosen activity.
If you’re a gymnast or dancer, activities where flexibility is favourable, then you might wish to undertake some form of stretching in the preparation phase of your sport. Conversely, those of you that undertake weightlifting might not find any benefit from stretching and subsequently choose to omit it from your routine.
Stretching potentially offers other benefits away from injury prevention. It might be a time for you to focus on the task ahead and mentally prepare for what you are about to do. Although research has not provided a link between stretching and injury prevention, it could be just as important to you as a form of mental preparation and achieving the correct mindset.
Although this article set out to answer all of your questions regarding stretching, it is possible that it has created more questions than answers. This is often the case with research and physical activity. It is important to consider your own unique and individual needs at this point.
There is no strict blueprint to follow when it comes to stretching, but you as an athlete knows what feels right and how to achieve a state of optimal preparation. If stretching is involved in this process, for whatever reason, there is no necessity to alter it at this stage.