Do you stretch before exercising? Perhaps before and after? Do you skip it altogether as I do, opting just to warm up and cool down instead? To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question.
Having led fitness classes for over 25 years, and as a former personal trainer, I can speak to the fact that people have various reasons for making stretching a part of their fitness routine. In truth however, most people do it, not because they note any real benefit, but because they feel they should do it with a view to preventing injury.
Research however, paints a different picture – one that suggests stretching neither helps nor hinders the recreational athlete. Two trials for example, one conducted on over 3500 army recruits, concluded that a three-month stretching routine before exercising didn’t notably reduce the risk of injury. The second study looked at the effects of a stretch routine on recreationally active people and drew similar conclusions. There is however, some suggestion that stretching can very minimally reduce muscle soreness post exercise.
The effect of stretching on sports performance isn’t as clear. Few if any studies have looked at overall performance as an outcome and have focused instead on stretching as it relates to flexibility and the ability of muscles to generate force.
In summary, for the vast majority of us recreational athletes, research suggests stretching offers few if any benefits. If you enjoy it, do it. If you’d rather not, don’t sweat it. As to the long-term effects of stretching (i.e. would there be a pay-off to doing it, but down the road) I’m not aware of any studies that have looked at stretching over a period of years. I’ll be honest, I don’t stretch before exercising (i.e. my daily runs) but I do enjoy yoga classes and have found them helpful in retaining and regaining flexibility.
I do however, warm-up before exercising, preparing my body for the hard work to come, and I do cool down (i.e. walk for a few minutes at the end of my runs) as my heart rate drops back down. Research tells us that a thorough warm-up can markedly reduce our risk of injury when exercising… something to keep in mind the next time you hit the tennis courts of gym.