Stretching has long been standard practice in sport. Advocates of stretching claim that it helps reduce injury, improve performance, and aid recovery. However, a number of studies have shown that stretching doesn’t actually produce all the positive physiological effects that were once thought to be true. In fact, studies have shown that certain types of stretching are detrimental to performance on certain physical tasks. Although some data provide opposition to the physiology of stretching, other theories contend that stretching may provide psychological benefits. This article will explore the physical and psychological effects of stretching on athletes.
There is a common belief in the sports world that stretching prevents injury. However, research indicates that stretching does not significantly reduce the risk of injury (Jamtvedt et al., 2010; Andersen, 2005; Bracko, 2002). The main function of stretching is to increase flexibility, making muscles more extensible. But according to Shrier (2000), greater flexibility isn’t necessarily linked with greater muscle strength, or any mechanism that protects against muscle failure. Furthermore, the majority of sports injuries occur during eccentric contractions, which may occur in normal ranges of motion and is not related to flexibility (Shrier, 2000). While stretching doesn’t prevent against injury, studies indicate that a proper warm up does (Rosenbaum, 1995). According to Safran et al. (1989), “physiological warming is of benefit in preventing muscular injury by increasing length to failure and elasticity of the muscle-tendon unit.” Warming up produces the desired effects of injury prevention that have long been attributed to stretching, but through a different mechanism.
There are several techniques used by individuals and teams to improve performance. One technique is the use of pre-exercise routines to prepare for practice or competition. These routines often include activities to help athletes get in the optimal mind-set to achieve their desired outcomes, and to assist neuromuscular pathways in performing sport-specific skills. Stretching is one common part of the pre-exercise routine often thought to elevate performance. However, studies have found that static stretching before exercise negatively affects performance on tasks like balance, reaction time, and movement time, as well as maximum force (McMillan et al., 2006; Behm et al., 2004; Behm et al, 2001). It is important to note that these studies examine static stretching; a passive form of stretching that doesn’t include movement. Interestingly, a subsequent study showed that the negative effects of static stretching are not due to muscle elasticity and range of motion, but instead due to muscle inactivation (Behm et al., 2006; Behm et al., 2001). A study by Rosenbaum & Henning (1995) adds that muscle activation through a warm-up pre-exercise actually improves force development. Dynamic stretching is a type of active stretching where muscles are elongated by moving joints through the ranges of motion required for a particular sport. While static stretching shows significant deficits in several performance tasks, pre-exercise dynamic stretching has been shown to reveal better performance scores on power and agility tasks relative to static warm up and non warm up conditions (McMillan et al., 2006; Little & Williams, 2006).
Stretching is also said to have post-exercise and long-term benefits, such as aiding in muscle recovery. Several studies have shown, however, that stretching before and after exercise does not have a significant effect on measures of muscle recovery or muscle soreness (Herbert, 2007). Athletes report stretching has less than two points decrease on a 100-point scale of feelings of soreness (Herbert, 2007; Andersen, 2005). Other studies suggest that stretching after exercise does reduce perceived feelings of “bothersome soreness” as well as feelings of “stiffness” (Torres et al., 2013; Jamtvedt et al., 2010). Bothersome soreness is a subjective measure of pain or aching after exercise, and stiffness refers to feelings of muscle extensibility. While these are not exactly physiological measures of muscle recovery, they are nonetheless important in interpreting athletes’ psychological recovery. According to Weerapong (2004),“Stretching activities may benefit athletes mentally through psychological mechanisms; however, there have been no detailed studies on the psychological effects of stretching.” Even if stretching does not influence objective measures of muscle damage, athletes who feel better may gain psychological benefits and be more motivated for future exercise training or competition. More research in this field is required to determine if these effects are significant to athlete performance.
Stretching for your own good
Athletes may gain a competitive edge through increased flexibility based on sport-specific tasks. For example, a gymnast may benefit from flexibility in performing certain flips or acrobatic movements. Likewise a baseball or softball player who can stretch out to make a catch or a soccer player who can lift a leg to reach a ball may be able to complete tasks that other athletes in their sport, who are less flexible, may not. Depending on specific demands of each sport and each position within a sport, there may be a benefit to stretching regularly to increase flexibility and suppleness. A study by Behm (2006), “showed no significant relationship between [range of motion] and stretch-induced deficits. There was also no significant effect of flexibility training on the stretch-induced decrements.” In other words, general flexibility does not have the same negative effect that some acute stretching has on performance. While most athletes choose to stretch immediately before or after exercise, others may choose to stretch at home as a daily routine, through yoga classes, or otherwise regularly. Stretching may have benefits and improve performance for athletes that necessitate high degrees of static flexibility (Behm & Chaouachi, 2011).
As mentioned earlier, stretching is often part of athlete routines. Whether the routine is pre-exercise, post-exercise or otherwise regular, stretching may provide psychological benefits to performance. Routines are often most effective when they are consistent. Taking a few moments to stretch before exercising may allow an athlete to focus on the task demands so they are more prepared to perform them. Stretching can also be a way of reducing anxiety and finding optimal states of arousal. Carlson et al. (1990) studied stretching as an alternative relaxation technique, and found that it “lowered subjective and objective states of arousal.” The benefits of having the right psychological mindset might outweigh the force detriments incurred by static stretching. Furthermore, stretching regularly may promote mindfulness by increasing awareness of mental, physiological, and environmental factors. For example, stretching regularly may make an athlete attuned to certain increases in muscles soreness and help the athlete take proper measures to alleviate that soreness before competition. Consistent stretching may enhance also neuromuscular pathways. Such techniques may be key in staying injury free and performing at a high level.
Although little research has been done to support the psychological benefits of regular stretching, many top tier athletes and sports professionals support the idea. Soccer legend Ryan Giggs attributes his impressive athletic longevity to his dedication to yoga and stretching. Perhaps the belief and commitment that stretching has a positive impact may be enough to help the athlete be mindful and maintain good health, allowing them to compete at a high level for longer.
Static stretching has no significant effect on injury prevention or performance enhancement, and may even be counterproductive. However, warming muscles before exercise is a viable alternative to achieve the same desired results. Dynamic stretching as part of the warm up can be beneficial in power and agility tasks. Effective pre-exercise routines should include a gradual warm up of the muscles and dynamic stretching by performing movements similar to that performed during exercise. This allows the athlete to lengthen and loosen muscles without the counterproductive effects of static stretching. Stretching has also been shown to be ineffective in aiding muscle recovery, but it may be beneficial to athlete psychological recovery and perceptions of pain. In addition, regular stretching to improve flexibility may benefit athletes in sport-specific demands, and may have other psychological benefits as well.