Does Stretching prevent you from Peak Performance?
by Rob Cook
Stretching has been such an ingrained part of our training for so long now that we no longer give any thought as to whether it’s actually doing you good and is still relevant in our training. So, is it? Well, lets look at the reasons we are currently stretching and how those theories are holding up against the data from the studies that have been conducted.
If I were to take an educated guess, I would say that the number one reason people stretch is to increase flexibility. Yet with this being the number one reason for stretching there has never been a single shred of evidence to support this belief. In fact, a recent study conducted by the University of Sydney to determine whether an intensive stretch program would increase the muscles ability to lengthen over the joint, came back with some interesting results. The study showed that after stretching the hamstring for 20 minutes, 5 times per week, for 4 weeks there was no increase in the muscles extensibility. It did, however, have an increased tolerance to the stretch. This basically means that although it may appear that you have gained a larger range of movement out of stretching that muscle, this is only an apparent result due to the muscles increased tolerance to the pressure of the stretch, not a real and lasting result.
So I’m sure by now some of you are shaking your head, yelling at this publication saying, “but stretching makes me feel better!” and generally I wouldn’t argue with doing something that makes you feel better and is doing no harm. But is it really doing you no harm? Another study focused on the response of the muscle post-stretch and it showed that the rate and speed at which the muscle can react and fire is seriously affected. In other words, by stretching prior to an activity or sport, you will decrease the muscles ability to perform at its peak. Not only that, stretching prior to an activity can actually set you up for greater injury. When you stretch, you dull the muscles elastic effect, which has a direct correlation to the muscles responsiveness. This starts to have a nasty effect when you are required to try to stop, turn, accelerate or react to something at speed and you have now lost or restricted your normal response time. This, in turn, leads to tears, sprains, strains and all those other common, yet nasty injuries.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you feel about stretching), the fact is there is no proven correlation between stretch and a decrease in muscle soreness, faster recovery times, improved athletic performance and/or flexibility. So if we now see stretching for what it really is, where do we go from here? All is not lost, and in fact, think I have a much simpler approach to your warm ups.
Let me put it to you like this. If you are about to do 5 rounds of sparring or go for a 10km run, how much of that time will be spent with your leg being held out straight and perfectly still with a stretch through your hamstring? Not even once! So why stay still to prepare your body to move? The best approach, in my opinion, is to move in patterns that look like and are similar to those in which you will engage in. Move like you’re boxing if you’re a boxer, not like a weightlifter or a rower. Makes sense, right!
So stop practicing dated beliefs and start creating movement, relevant and specific to you and your training. The results will speak for themselves.
[Folpp H, Deall S, Harvey LA and Gwinn T (2006): Can apparent changes in muscle extensibility with regular stretch be explained by changes in tolerance to stretch? Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 52: 45-50]