Is stretching valuable for athletic performance?

We deal with a high proportion of track and field athletes as patients in our clinic. Sprinters, jumpers and throwers all have common attributes – good discipline, and more interestingly high level of body awareness. It makes sense, these are athletes who generally have a short window to perform and extremely demanding endeavour so the importance of assessing your body and mind in warm-up routines is a paramount component for performance and injury risk. It never ceases to amaze me the number of these athletes that come into the clinic and are quick to state something along the lines of “my body is so stiff” or “I know I should do more stretching” whenever the conversation or assessment of flexibility comes up. It should be mentioned that these statements always carry a negative association, whereby this known deficit is having a decremental effect on performance. This raises an important question – if you believe you are stiff and this is having a negative effect, why are you not implementing interventions into your training to either reverse or mitigate these effects?

This is the consequence of a larger issue at hand, that is there is a lot of debate and discrepancy about whether stretching has any therapeutic value or benefit to athletic performance. This extends from researchers to clinicians and coaches. Herein lies one of the major issues related to stretching, an individual may have experienced a positive effect from stretching whether it be related to freedom of movement, enhancing recovery or mitigating the effects from training (e.g. DOMS or muscle soreness) however it has not carried over to implementing it into warm-ups, cool downs or as a training session in itself. This is often due to influential powers, coach or health clinicians, believing stretching may not be of benefit.

Why might this be the case?

Over the course of the late 90’s and and early 2000’s, a number of research studies, most of which were completed on untrained individuals, applied stretching acutely and showed a reduction in power output for tasks such as jump performance. This may sound bad, however if you have never been exposed to an intervention, then it is a likely outcome that your body will respond poorly to it initially. Imagine we were to give heavy squats to an untrained individual and then asked to measure jump performance. Of course it would be bad, however we know from ongoing research that particularly in strength trained individuals squatting prior to jump performance may actually boost jumping performance, and long term exposure is very likely to enhance jump performance over the long term. A more recent review, Behm et al 2016, shows that if applied over a period of time protocols of stretching not only enhance performance acutely but reduce the risk of injury, this is in both static and dynamic applications of stretching. Pinto et al showed that the previous reductions in performance from static stretching may be associated with the duration >60 second holds, however 30 second holds enhanced or had a nil effect on performance, but reduced injury risk.

So again the question is ‘Is stretching valuable for athletic performance?’ I purposely structured the question this way to highlight what I consider an important point – such questions invoke dichotomous thinking, but this black and white logic is just illusory. The truth is there are many factors that need to be considered with regard to stretching, as discussed by Behm et al, but we do know that if applied well it can improve range of motion, reduce injury and potentially improve performance at no detriment to power output. We will look to discuss many of the factors further in future posts.