Whether you’re a professional athlete or a weekend warrior, you’ve heard the mantra countless times: stretch before a workout. So, you dutifully comply. But does science back up the claim about limbering up before activity?
NEIL GHODADRA, MD, renowned, board-certified, and fellowship-trained sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon, weighs in on this topic. As the former team physician to the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, he’s seen every type of sports injury imaginable. These days, you can find him at his practice in Los Angeles and Thousand Oaks, California, caring for athletes and nonathletes alike. Here, he offers his expert analysis on pre-workout stretching.
Facts about muscle injuries
As one of the most common sport-related muscle injuries, a strain happens when you suddenly overstretch a muscle — usually the quadricep or hamstring muscles along the front or back of the thigh. It makes sense that you should stretch those muscles to ease them into the activity, right?
Take, for example, the case of Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest runner. During his final race in the Worlds Athletics Championships, he severely strained his hamstring, but not because he didn’t stretch before the race.
When you run, your leg goes through several movement phases: It swings forward, floats for a second as it slows the forward motion of your shin, descends, and follows through behind you. Throughout this process, your hamstring never comes close to reaching its maximum stretching capability, which is why stretching and flexibility aren’t to blame.
During the swinging/floating stage, the fibers in your hamstring must elongate, then quickly switch gears and shorten. Most hamstrings strains can be blamed on fatigue, which is why most of these injuries occur during the last half or quarter of a competition.
For many years, coaches, trainers, and physicians have implored athletes to stretch before a game or workout to avoid this painful and slow-healing injury. Though well-intentioned, studies show their advice may be invalid.
Stretching: What it can and can’t do for you
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stretch; it just means you may need to adjust your expectations of what stretching accomplishes.
Stretching improves your flexibility
Better flexibility may help prevent an injury if flexibility is key to your sport, such as gymnastics. Tight muscles can’t make sudden movements easily, so if you jump into a pickup game of hoops after sitting at your desk all day, you may end up with a pulled muscle. But a quick stretch before game time isn’t the solution. To achieve the level of flexibility required for sports, you need to incorporate stretching and other activities into your daily routine.
Stretching provides a sense of well-being and readiness
If you’re accustomed to stretching before a competition, you may find that the routine helps you calm your nerves and focus your mind, body, and energy on the task ahead. That’s reason enough to continue stretching before an athletic event.
Stretching does not decrease soreness
Although experts previously thought stretching before and after exercise would alleviate the inevitable soreness associated with strenuous activity, researchers have proven otherwise.
Stretching does not improve performance
Stretching as part of your overall training can keep you flexible and ready to make sudden movements on the court or field, but stretching immediately before you play can have the opposite effect. Some evidence suggests your strength may actually decline after a session of stretching.
How to prevent sports injuries
Dr. Ghodadra offers several tips for preventing sports injuries:
- Focus on strength, particularly your core muscles
- Use proper technique and biomechanics
- Allow your body to rest between periods and after the game
- Maintain flexibility by making stretching part of your daily routine
- Always take time to heal fully before returning to activity
Improper healing and returning to the game too soon are sure-fire ways to reinjure yourself. If you have a strained muscle, sprained ankle, torn ACL, dislocation, or any other type of musculoskeletal injury, schedule an appointment with NEIL GHODADRA, MD, for world-class diagnosis, treatment, and expert care.