How Does Stretching Prevent Sports Injury?
The truth about how stretching and flexibility training really prevents sports injuries.
by Brad Walker | First Published November 30, 2012 | Updated November 29, 2018
A USA Track & Field (USATF) research study of 2,729 volunteers set out to answer the question: Does 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 (30+ 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.
Warning! 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.
A strength training comparison
By the time I got to university in 1990, I’d already developed a keen interest in the field of sports coaching and athletic training. I was at university studying health science in sport and exercise, and I’d eagerly devour any new research I could get my hands on about how to train athletes more efficiently and effectively.
As I read through the latest and most advanced training methods other coaches and researchers were using, I started to notice a number of research articles emerging about this new form of training called: Strength and Conditioning.
Now I know this may seem quite odd to anyone who has worked in the strength and conditioning industry for less than 20 years, but stick with me because as you read through the rest of this article you’ll start to see a lot of similarities between what was happening in the strength training industry 25 years ago, and what’s happening with stretching and flexibility today.
Previous to the mid 1980’s, the only people who did strength training, or lifted weights, were body builders, and the thought of any other athlete lifting weights was ridiculous.
There were a few exceptions, but for the most part the accepted method of training at the time was: Specificity! In other words; if you were a runner, you ran. The thought of lifting weights or performing other non-running activities was just plain crazy.
As athletes and coaches started to experiment with different types of strength training a vicious debate developed about the proposed benefits of such an activity. One month there would be articles praising the benefits of this new revolutionary training method, explaining how athletes would now be able to run faster, jump higher and do away with sports injury.
Then the next month another article would come out exposing strength training as a waste of time; an activity that did more harm than good, and would only serve to slow athletes down and cause more injuries, not less.
Does this sound familiar? Are you hearing similar comments regarding stretching and flexibility training? So what happened with strength training?
Over time, coaches, athletes and researchers discovered how to use strength training for the greatest benefit to the athlete. They discovered what worked and what didn’t and kept modifying their training until they came up with guidelines for effective strength training.
So… How does stretching prevent injury?
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 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.
Stretching is not a quick fix
Remember, stretching is not a quick fix. The benefits of proper stretching are only attained when flexibility training is applied professionally and diligently over an extended period of time. And 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.
Get over 150 of the best stretch routines to do away with injuries; increase your flexibility; improve your sporting performance; and become loose, limber and pain free.
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Research, References and Related Articles
- USATF Stretch Study 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.
- Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis
- Warming-up and stretching for improved physical performance and prevention of sports-related injuries
About the Author: Brad Walker 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 (author page) 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 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.
Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.