Stretching for Performance – When and Whom to Stretch

Regular stretching increases force and power by 2% to 5% and improves running speed by 0.06 seconds over 50-yards.

by Ian Shrier, MD, PhD. | First Published in the Physician and Sports Medicine Vol. 33 – No. 3 – March 2005

Outline of the Study

This article surveys existing literature on the use of stretching prior to athletic activity, focusing on differences in performance obtained by regular, daily routines, as opposed to sporadic stretches. While isolated stretching immediately prior to exercise has been shown to have no effect on injury prevention and a negative impact on power and strength performance, regular stretching performed every day yields benefits in several areas.

The authors recommend regular stretching routines, outlining the basic science of stretching and suggest stretching regimens of greatest utility for practicing athletes. These are shown to be highly dependent on the desired results, as well as the pre-existing state of fitness and the particular athletic event undertaken. Although range of motion increases with both regular and sporadic stretching, the approaches are otherwise postulated to have opposite effects on athletic performance, particularly in force, power and speed for running events.

What the Study Was Trying to Prove

One major contention of the study is that regular stretching carried out daily for several weeks delivers improvements in force and power similar to those obtained through weight training. Though the improvements are modest and range from 2-5%, the author’s stress that in elite athletic situations; this can make the difference between winning a gold medal and not placing in an event.

By contrast, power and force decrease immediately following bouts of acute stretching, whether static or through proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). (Similar decreases are seen in muscular isometric maximal voluntary contraction, isokinetic torque, static jump height, countermovement jump height, and drop jump height.) The authors points out however, that despite such performance decreases following acute stretching, there is a corresponding improvement in economy of motion, i.e., the amount of oxygen required to run a given distance. Studies to date have frequently failed to weigh both the pro and cons.

Summary of Results

Improvements in force, power and running speed are noted following regular stretching, in marked contrast to acute stretches performed immediately prior to exercise, which tend to yield opposite effects, (though acute stretching is helpful in certain situations, particularly where the benefits of increased ROM outweigh the limits to force and power production). This follows for a variety of activities, again including isometric maximal voluntary contraction, isokinetic torque, static jump height, countermovement jump height, and drop jump height. Running economy remains unchanged, following regular daily stretching.

Conclusions

Stretching immediately before exercise is deemed ineffective in preventing injuries and also reduces force and power by about 2% to 5%. Regular stretching over weeks yields opposite effects, increasing force and power by about 2% to 5% while improving running speed by about 0.06 second during a 50-yard dash. The authors helpfully include a broad range of “vignettes” designed to evaluate the relative benefits of stretching for athletes of various ages, strengths and degrees of flexibility. These vignettes present a more nuanced picture of the benefits and shortcomings of both acute and daily stretching for given athletes under specific conditions.

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Credits, Miscellaneous

Dr Shrier is director of the consultation service at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Community Studies at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, and is an assistant professor in the department of family medicine at McGill University in Montreal.

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