Runners do it before a race. Swimmers do it before hopping in the pool. Your average gym rat does it before starting to pump iron. Most coaches, gym teachers, and personal trainers preach that stretching before exercise is an essential part of both avoiding injury and improving performance. But while it’s still popularly considered a basic tenet of health and wellness, scientific research into the value of stretching has cast doubt on its usefulness. For many athletic pursuits, studies suggest that stretching might actually be detrimental.
Even for those who follow fitness science closely, old habits die hard and many may be loath to give up stretching. “Because stretching decreases pain and makes you feel good, it is easy to extrapolate this to think it will prevent injury. But unfortunately, the reason it makes you feel good is one of the reasons it does not prevent injury,” states Dr. Ian Shrier, a sports medicine physician at McGill University in Montreal and author of many scientific studies on stretching.
So how did stretching become so ingrained in our collective athletic consciousness to begin with?
The case for stretching as a means for injury prevention is grounded in the theory that a muscle that has been lengthened by stretching is more supple, decreasing stress to surrounding tendons, ligaments, and muscles and protecting them from the repeated stresses of activity. A study in the journal Sports Medicine advises that “improving flexibility through stretching is another important preparatory activity that has been advocated to improve physical performance. Maintaining good flexibility also aids in the prevention of injuries to the musculoskeletal system.”