The Truth About Stretching
By Dr. Scott Dunham March 29, 2011
It’s been a common sight at rugby pitches across the province for years: a team sitting in a circle while the captain or coach leads the team in a series of stretches in preparation for a practice or game. The coach tells the team that stretching before a game will prevent injuries, as well as help increase their performance.
These common assertions are made with the best of intentions to prepare athletes for competition. They were based on what had worked for teams in the past, and this knowledge was passed down from team to team over the years.
Until recently, there was no research that could support or refute the commonly held notions that stretching prevents injury and increases performance when performed before games. The research that is accumulating is shattering previously held beliefs on the effects of stretching.
According to Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques, flexibility is defined as “the ability to move a single joint or series of joints smoothly and easily through an unrestricted, pain-free range of motion.”
A 2004 literature review entitled, The impact of stretching on sports injury risk, looked at various studies on flexibility and injury rates.
They found conclusively that stretching was not significantly associated with a reduction of total injuries.
One interesting study included in the review showed that those most prone to injury were either really inflexible or really over-flexible. So if you are in the mid-range of flexibility, you are less likely to have an injury compared to your over-flexible or inflexible peers. If you find yourself excessively inflexible, a selective stretching program may prove beneficial when performed regularly at non-competition times.
Another common claim was that stretching immediately before competition would increase your performance. Another literature review also published in 2004 entitled, “Does Stretching Increase Performance?” found 21 studies that looked at performance and stretching prior to competition. Twenty of the 21 studies found a decrease in performance if stretching was done prior to the activity with one study finding mixed results.
These studies involved jumping, lifting or throwing types of activities. The reason for these findings is that stretching puts your muscles into a temporarily lengthened state that is not well equipped for maximum contraction.
So if stretching before activity does not prevent injuries, and can actually decrease performance, then what is a better alternative?
Recently there has been a shift away from “static stretching,” which is the typical slow, holding type of stretch that we are so accustomed to. The newest type of stretching that is increasing in popularity is “dynamic stretching,” which involves stretching the muscle in a relatively fast-moving manner.
Examples of this would be leg swings, butt-kicks, lunges, arm circles, etc. The research is still accumulating, but the general consensus to date is that this is a much better way to prepare athletes for competition.
In 2004, a National Strength & Conditioning Association study involving rugby players demonstrated that dynamic stretching produced significantly faster 20-metre sprint times than static stretching or no stretching at all.
A follow-up study in 2007 looked at combining dynamic and static stretching, and revealed that static stretching could actually undo the effects of dynamic stretching, making the athletes slower and less powerful.
The success of dynamic stretching is due to preparing the athlete for competition by mimicking the movements they will have to perform on the field of play. Every team has its own traditions, and each has its own unique way of preparing the team to play up to its potential.
Especially at the higher levels, the emphasis now is on general body warm-up and dynamic stretching to prepare the athletes for competition. Warm-ups that mimic game-like situations will help prepare the athletes mentally for competition, and dynamic stretching will best prepare the body for the situations one will encounter during the course of play.
The take-home message would be to encourage your athletes before the game to participate in activities that will get their body warm, and mimic the motions and actions that will occur during the game.
Getting away from slow stretching and towards quicker stretching techniques will only help your athletes to avoid injury and perform at their very best.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Scrum, Ontario's Rugby Magazine.
Dr. Scott Dunham is a regular columnist for Scrum Canada. See his bio here.