Thirty years ago, it was common to see young athletes gather at the beginning of a practice to participate in a round of static toe-touches and quad stretches. Back then, it was thought that this type of stretching was necessary to prevent injuries and improve performance. But things have changed.
The science of stretching and flexibility is one of the fields that have grown more complex and recent studies have shown that static stretching prior to activity can actually be detrimental to performance and does not necessarily lead to decreases in injuries.
Static stretching involves reaching or bending forward until you begin to feel tension in the muscle and then holding the stretch for 20-30 seconds. According to an article in bloomtofit.com, static stretching will help you to overcome the stretch reflex, which is the automatic tightening of a muscle you feel when you stretch.
“The muscle usually relaxes after roughly 20 seconds,” the article notes. Static stretching is an important part of your fitness routine because it remains one of the most effective ways to elongate muscle, increase range of motion and maintain flexibility, which, overall, helps to minimize injury.
However, research cited by elitescoccerconditioning.com has shown that static stretching can decrease muscle strength by up to nine percent for 60 minutes following the stretch and that stretching reduced peak muscle force by five percent and the rate of force production by 8%. This reduction in muscle performance is likely due to decreased muscle elasticity. Runningplanet.com likens this to over stretching a rubber band: “Just as an over stretched rubber band loses its ability to return energy, your muscles lose elasticity and their ability to return stored energy.”
Unfortunately, some coaches and sports teams still rely on “old school” methods of static stretching before practices and games instead of adopting newer recommendations to engage in cardiovascular warm ups and dynamic stretching prior to activity.
Dynamic stretching uses exaggerated sport specific movements, such as knee lifts, heel kicks and lunges, that prepare the body for movement. Elitesoccerconditioning.com notes that dynamic stretching “increases flexibility, core temperature, muscle temperature, elongates the muscles, stimulates the nervous system, and helps decrease the chance of injury.”
Studies have shown that dynamic stretching does not adversely affect muscle elasticity. This, combined with its effectiveness in increasing blood flow, lubricating joints and decreasing muscle tightness, renders it the preferred method of pre-activity stretching.
All forms of stretching are most effective after a thorough cardiovascular warm up, which elevates body temperature and warms the muscles, which makes them more pliable; think of a cold piece of taffy that has been warmed or a spaghetti noodle that has been cooked.
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So the optimal routine to follow is to engage in a cardiovascular warm up and dynamic stretching prior to activity, followed by static stretching afterward.