How Does Stretching Prevent Sports Injury?
The truth about how stretching (flexibility training) really prevents sports injuries.
by Brad Walker | First Published November 30, 2012 | Updated August 2, 2018
A USA Track & Field (USATF) research study of 2,729 volunteers set out to answer the question: 1Does pre-exercise stretching prevent injury in runners? Here’s what they found…
- When adjusting for all potential risk factors, there remained no significant difference between the two stretching groups.
- When comparing injuries which prevented running in excess of 1 or 2 weeks, there is no significant difference between the stretch and no stretch groups whether adjusting for other risk factors or not.
- There was no statistically significant difference in injury rates between the stretch and no stretch groups for any specific injury location or diagnosis.
- And finally; Over a three-month period there was no statistically significant difference in injury risk between the pre-run stretching and non-stretching groups. Stretching neither prevented nor induced injury when compared to not stretching before running.
So it’s no surprise that I’m often asked: Is there any scientific evidence that proves stretching will prevent a sports injury (or make me a better athlete)? And if I’m honest (and respectful of the research), I have to reply by saying; Not a lot.
But before you give up stretching altogether, let me ask another question. Is there any scientific evidence that proves push-ups, or lunges, or bicep curls will prevent sports injuries (or make you a better athlete)?
While the answer to this question is also a no, it doesn’t mean these exercises aren’t beneficial, or don’t have a place in your training program. And the same applies to stretching and flexibility training.
While doing a few hamstring stretches before running onto the field or hitting the gym will not prevent injury (which is exactly what the USATF study did), the same can be said for push-ups, or bicep curls, or any other strength exercise. But stretching, just like push-ups, was never meant to be used in this way, and this is where the so-called scientific studies fall short.
What does the science say?
In an attempt to measure the benefits of stretching, researchers have tried to use stretching in the same way as the examples above. They have tried to measure the effects of doing a few stretches before playing sport, and when the results of their research suggest that no benefit was gained, they make the wrong assumption that stretching is not beneficial.
In fact, a few weeks ago one of my readers sent me an article titled; “Stop Stretching!” In it the author claims that “…research shows stretching has no value.”
These sorts of blanket statements are a miss-interpretation and a gross exaggeration of the research, and are very miss-leading as to what the research actually says.
Although the author only makes reference to one study, I can assume he’s referring to any number of studies that have been done over the last 10 to 15 years on the effects of stretching before exercise.
So what have the research studies proved so far?
Specifically… that doing long-hold (20+ seconds) static stretches immediately before power based activities like running, jumping and sprinting can have a detrimental effect on explosive power and speed.
In other words: Doing a specific type of stretching, in a specific way, immediately before another specific activity, can have a negative effect on athletic performance.
NOT that “stretching has no value.”
Anyone who makes a comment like the one above, either doesn’t know how to interpret a research study (or maybe they’ve never even read the research and are just regurgitating what they’ve heard someone else say), or they have an ulterior motive.
Now I’m the first to admit that stretching is no miracle activity. Stretching is just one part of a holistic health and wellness plan: An often neglected part, but all the same, just one part. So I do my best to keep a level-headed perspective of what stretching can and can’t do.
How does stretching prevent injury?
So, if doing a few simple stretches before playing your sport isn’t going to help; how do you use flexibility training in a way that will prevent injuries and make you a better athlete?
The short answer: In exactly the same way as you would use a strength training program.
When designing a strength training program, the trainer first assesses the player for weaknesses, imbalances and areas of their game or performance that need improvement. The trainer then designs a program that works to improve these areas, and over the long term, these strength improvements translate into improved performance out on the real world and a reduction in injury.
When designing a flexibility training program, the same approach is taken. The player is first assessed for weaknesses, imbalances and areas of their game or performance where flexibility is important and needs to be improved. The trainer then designs a program that aims to improve these areas, and the program is applied over the long term. As the player’s flexibility improves, so should their performance and their resilience to injury.
Which muscles need to be stretched?
This leads us to the next question: Which muscles should you stretch? As a general rule; if it’s not tight and it’s not causing you any problems, you don’t need to stretch it. There are a few exceptions to this, but for most athletes this is a good starting point. So if you perform a stretch and don’t feel any tension in the target muscle group, this would indicate that you’re not tight in that area.
As you start to notice which muscles are tight and which muscles aren’t, aim to create a balance of flexibility between the front of your body and the back of your body, and the left side of your body and the right side of your body. For example, if you notice that your right hamstring muscles are tighter than your left hamstrings muscles, work on the right hamstring muscles until you have even flexibility in both.
Remember, the benefits of stretching are only attained when flexibility training is applied professionally and diligently over an extended period of time. Flexibility training will help to prevent sports injury, when used correctly.
Choosing the right stretch
Now remember, there are no magic stretches. Doing one or two stretches every now and again isn’t going to help. And doing the same stretches over and over again isn’t going to help either. Here’s what I suggest…
To do away with stiff, tight muscles and joints, and become loose, limber and pain free, grab a copy of the Ultimate Stretching Video & Book Guide.
In no time you'll... Improve your freedom of movement and full-body mobility. Get rid of those annoying aches, pains and injuries. And take your flexibility (and ease of movement) to the next level.
You'll get 135 clear photographs and 44 video demonstrations of unique stretching exercises for all the major muscle groups in your body. Plus, the DVD includes 3 customized stretching routines (8 minutes each) for the Upper Body; the Lower Body; and the Neck, Back & Core. And the Handbook will show you, step-by-step, how to perform each stretch correctly and safely.
Get back to the activities you love. Whether it’s enjoying your favorite sport, or walking the dog, or playing with the grand kids. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step. Or being able to work in the garden or play your favorite sport without “paying-for-it” the next day.
Be very wary of anyone who tells you that doing a few stretches before your next game will make you sports injury bullet-proof or turn you into a super athlete.
However, taking 5 minutes to do a few stretches both before and after each workout will improve your flexibility over the long term. And if you’re consistent, in a month or two you’ll find that you have a greater range of movement; you’ll feel more fluid and relaxed; you’ll be less susceptible to muscle strains and pulls; and you’ll be enjoying your sport more too.
1 Daniel Pereles, MD, Alan Roth PhD, and Darby JS Thompson MS. A Large, Randomized, Prospective Study of the Impact of a Pre-Run Stretch on the Risk of Injury in Teenage and Older Runners. USATF Stretch Study
About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.