Stretching is an essential component to an overall healthy body. However, stretching immediately prior to athletic competition may place an individual at greater risk of injury. Research demonstrates that immediately following stretching there is a loss of muscle power and strength. The most frequent study model involves calf stretching followed by vertical jumps, which results in decreased performance. There is a natural elastic component in muscles and vigorous stretching results in a temporary loss of this elasticity. The muscles natural elasticity contributes to the overall power generated by a muscle, especially when performing explosive movements. Performance therefore may decline and potential risk for injury may increase with vigorous stretching immediately prior to activity.
Warming up is much more important in preventing injuries immediately before aggressive exercise or sport competition. Warming up allows the muscle tissue to be more flexible but does not result in a significant temporary loss of muscle elasticity. Think about a how hard it is to roll or unroll a cold garden hose, now set that garden hose in the sun and the hose becomes much more flexible. Muscles that have gone through a warm up will work more efficiently and are less likely to develop strains that can lead to single event or repetitive use injuries. Warming up your muscles through progressive cardiovascular activity, agility drills, and active or movement based stretching is a more proven form of injury prevention than vigorous pre-sport stretching.
So does this mean you do not need to stretch? Absolutely not! Stretching is important, but the ideal time to perform stretching is when the body is warm – after activity. Generally, the healthiest bodies have a balance between strength and flexibility. Muscle tightness can lead to abnormal mechanics or increase strain to tissues, which place the body at greater risk for injury.
Written by: Michael Hoag, PT, DPT, MBA, OCS, MTC