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Jun 22

To Stretch or Not to Stretch

Is it time, once again, to stretch? For decades, many of us stretched before a workout, usually by reaching toward our toes or leaning against a wall to elongate our hamstrings, then holding that pose without moving until it felt uncomfortable, a technique known as static stretching. Most people, including scientists and entire generations of elementary-school P.E. teachers, believed that static stretching lengthened muscles and increased flexibility, making people better able to perform athletically.

But about 10 years ago, researchers began putting the practice to the test. They found that when athletes did static stretches, performance often suffered. Many couldn’t jump as high, sprint as fast or swing a tennis racquet or golf club as powerfully as they could before they stretched. Static stretching appeared to cause the nervous system to react and tighten, not loosen, the stretched muscle, the research showed.

Not surprisingly, stretching fell out of favor among well-informed athletes and coaches. Last year, new exercise guidelines issued by the American College of Sports Medicine specifically advised against static stretching before workouts or competitions. The European College of Sport Sciences issued a position statement saying that such stretching could “diminish” athletic performance.

Which means, naturally, that static stretching is ripe for scientific reappraisal. And right on cue, several contrarian new reviews and studies suggest that static stretching may not be so bad after all — and may even be desirable.

For the most comprehensive, and bluntest, of the new reports, published this month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers reviewed more than 100 studies of stretching and concluded that the “detrimental effects of static stretch are mainly limited to longer duration” poses, meaning stretches that last for at least a minute. If you hold a particular stretch for a shorter period, the authors wrote, particularly for less than 30 seconds, you should experience “no detrimental effect.”

The other studies came to similar conclusions. A close reading of earlier studies, published in March in The European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that “a substantial number” of the experiments did not find “detrimental effects associated with prior static stretching,” especially if the stretches were “of short duration” or were stopped before “the point of discomfort.” And a new study of well-trained female collegiate runners undertaken at Florida State University and published last month in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, showed that a static-stretching routine consisting of five leg-muscle stretches, each held for 30 seconds and repeated four times, “did not have an adverse effect” on the women’s performance in a timed treadmill running test.

Of course, conclusions like “no detrimental effect” or “did not have an adverse effect” are not ringing endorsements of static stretching and beg the obvious question: if brief stretches aren’t bad for us, are they actively good? Should we, in other words, be making an effort to stretch before we exercise?

That question, most of today’s stretching researchers say, remains difficult to answer. “Several studies have revealed that stretching,” even of short duration, “increases the range of motion about a joint and reduces the stiffness of the muscle,” Anthony Kay, a senior lecturer in sport and exercise biomechanics at the University of Northampton and the lead author of the latest review, told me. “Both of these,” he explained, reduce “the risk of muscle strain injury,” though muscle strains are not a top concern for many of us.

“Muscle strains are uncommon in activities such as jogging,” cycling or swimming, said Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Training at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, who has extensively studied stretching. Runners, swimmers and cyclists are more prone to overuse injuries, Dr. McHugh said, and the newest studies and reviews have not found that stretching reduces the risk of overuse injuries.

On the other hand, “if you are involved in a sport that demands a great extent of static flexibility,” such as “holding a split position” during gymnastics or dropping into the ungainly crouch of “an ice hockey goalie,” then “you may need to add some static stretching,” said David Behm, the associate director of graduate studies and research at Memorial University of Newfoundland and lead author of the European journal review of stretching.

So there you have the state of the science on stretching. Hockey goalies, gymnasts, cheerleaders and dancers should be stretching before workouts or performances. The rest of us are unlikely, the latest findings show, to sustain any harm from brief spurts of static stretching — but equally unlikely to gain much advantage.

So if you stretch now before exercising and enjoy it, continue. “The negative psychological impact of altering precompetition routine may outweigh any possible benefit associated with removing” static stretching, the study of female runners concluded. But if you don’t stretch, don’t sweat it. “I would say there is no rationale” for most of us to practice “short duration static stretches,” Dr. McHugh said.

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