Photo from coachbillcowan.com

We see it all the time, folks fresh out the door, getting ready to walk, run, play a sport or work out, bending and stretching, pushing and holding to warm up.  Be careful.  Stretching does not warm up muscles and doing so before certain activities could be detrimental.  It can reduce performance level and if done incorrectly, can damage muscles.

In the example of long distance running, a study at Florida State University found that participants who stretched before a 60 minute run had a 3.4% lower distance traveled while expending more energy than those who did not stretch.  Why?  Jacob Wilson, PhD who conducted the study explains: “Muscles and tendons are like elastic bands.  When loose, they don’t store and release energy as well, so you have to work harder to move the same distance.”  Similar results have been found for other activities and in 2010 new exercise guidelines issued by the American College of Sports Medicine, (ACSM), specifically advise against static stretching before workouts or competitions.

photo from sportsmedicine.about.com
Well, what about those of us who are not as concerned about optimal performance?  Shouldn’t we stretch before our workout to prevent strains or pulls?  It depends on the activity. By increasing range of motion and decreasing muscle stiffness, stretching can reduce muscle strain injury.  Muscle strain injury more often occurs in activities that require a high degree of static flexibility like dancing, gymnastics, football etc. Here, muscle positions are held with exertion for periods of time and/or there are bursts of sudden movement change.  According to Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine, muscle strain injury is not common in activities with repetitive motion like walking, running, cycling, swimming etc.  These activities are more prone to overuse injury where there is no evidence that stretching before has a preventative effect.

If stretching before your sport or workout activity, make sure you warm up first.  Our resting heart rate does not deliver sufficient oxygen to the muscles to safely accommodate static stretching.  Start with ~10 mins of light aerobic activity to warm up those ‘cold muscles’, then begin your static stretching routine.  Many experts agree that stretching after your activity/workout is optimal.

Stretching is a very important aspect for achieving and maintaining functional and physical fitness.  It increases flexibility, range of motion, circulation and can work wonders in reducing stress. (One hour, a mat and some soft music beautifully refreshes a not so poppin day.)  Give stretching it’s time in your fitness regimen, just make sure it’s placement is the right time for you and what you do.