“STRETCHING DOESN'T PREVENT INJURY”

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After a great discussion and very interesting debate on Instagram on Tuesday afternoon I began to write an instagram post. I got carried away and soon realised it was far too long so now it’s a blog. Hello Blog. It turns out that there is no real scientific evidence to support the fact that stretching prevents injury. Being a yoga teacher, and often prescribing clients in my PT and sports therapy sessions ‘stretching’ and release techniques to improve healthy movement patterns, tackle compensatory patterns and improve performance for their sport, their job or their meaningful task I found this very surprising indeed. Had I potentially been talking absolute nonsense for years? 

 
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I do beg your pardon? Then why does stretching make us so much longer?

The argument goes that we are not creating longer muscles or fibres but just becoming desensitised to stretching. Basically our neurological system is allowing less tension and therefore our range of movement increases. 

Is static stretching bad? 

I remember at university when a lot of empirical research came out suggesting static stretching did not prevent injury and could actually reduce power output for performance. The nature of a ‘warm up’ changed in elite sport, college sport, local sport and in all activities with everyone adopting a dynamic stretching approach to gain mobility around the joints and prepare muscles for the actions and intensity required for their sport. These studies, if I recall, indicated that static stretching reduced muscle activation, power and strength if the stretch was longer than 60 seconds. As in many debates, of course, it comes down to the individual and to context. Individuals must prepare their bodies to move in healthy ranges depending on the demands of their activity, sport, work and life. This could be dynamic or ballistic stretching, vinyasa flow yoga or eccentric strength training (Combining strength with length). Therefore stretching would, following this argument, still prevent injury but it would be dynamic stretching or a vinyasa flow style of yoga and not static. Let it flow! 

Are there different types of stretching?

Yes. Typically I would use dynamic stretching for a warm up, static stretching for recovery, and PNF (Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) which is assisted stretching in physical therapy or with athletes to improve range of movement in a specific muscle group. 

Should we ‘stretch' for injury rehab or recovery? 

End range or ‘aggressive’ stretching isn’t always the best option for injury rehabilitation or recovery. However from my experience I have found that releasing tension in adaptively shortened muscle groups through restorative stretching, restorative yoga and contract/relax MET methods can greatly improve recovery time, take tension and load away from joints and muscles which have become short and tight to protect an injury. Consequently reducing chance of future injury. For example in our 6 week online Surffit program we incorporate a daily 20 minute recovery session when on a surf trip to enhance the bodies ability to repair and recover for the following day. Therefore in this instance ‘stretching’ and ‘releasing’ is helping to prevent injury. 

Is it possible to be too flexible? 

Yes it is. If you look at Ballet dancers, dancers or gymnasts, hypermobility can make us vulnerable to injury especially at end range of movement. I’ve experienced this recently working with young GB beach volleyball players. These athletes require stability and strength through and at end range of movement. Pairing strength and conditioning and lot’s of eccentric strength training (Length and strength) would offer these athletes more protection. 

Is Stretching important for an athlete? 

For many sports ‘stretching’ improves flexibility and mobility (strength through and at end range of movement) required for the  movements of the sport. Many sports demands large range of movements therefore an athlete must train end range movement patterns to reduce risk of injury and improve performance. If the body can get into more ‘demanding’ positions, I would suggest there would be a decreased risk of injury. For example if world surf champion Gabriel Medina (who I’ve trained but don’t want to go on about it , 😂) didn’t have the flexibility for a manoeuvre, a muscle would, I predict be more likely go into spasm or be injured. In football if Christiano Ronaldo lunged for a ball the same would apply. These sports demand end ranges of movement. The athletes end range of movement is greater due to functional stretching and eccentric strength training. Stretching is therefore reducing chance of injury. 

This doesn’t only apply to elite athletes. On our Surffit retreats in Nazare one of the screening tests we do is to assess a clients ability to go from a 1 legged downward dog to placing their foot between their hands. If they cannot achieve this they cannot perform their meaningful task (surfing) without deleterious effects for their hips and back. The best way to achieve and improve movement patterns, and increase mobility? Stretch, release and strengthen. Stretching is reducing likelihood of injury. 

Personally I also believe that my back injury in my 20’s was largely due to lack of mobility in my hamstrings. Thus when playing football or surfing I was more predisposed to an injury as I didn’t have the required ROM for functional movement. Stretching and yoga would, and subsequently did, help this. 

However it is again down to the individual and is not always the case. I remember doing a session with cyclist Victoria Pendleton and her olympic coach wouldn’t allow her to do yoga as it may decrease the power output for her specific track event. Her cycling position was ‘a tight ball’ like a coiled spring of power therefore stretching could decrease her muscle activation, sprint velocity and strength. 

Can stretching improve your posture?

I believe it can. If you were to take two office workers who spend 8 hours at their desk every day, drive home for an hour, sit in front of their TVs, then slept on their sides with their knees to their chest. They are spending most of their life in the same position. (Short hip flexors, protracted shoulders, rounded spine). However one of them, Bob I’ll call him, happens to go to yoga 3 times a week. We don’t need scientific back up to know that Bob will feel better and have less likelihood of injury or compensatory patterns developing over time. 

Can stretching improve longevity in your sport? 

I believe that stretching , yoga and mobility has great long term benefits. A lot of athletes such as Kelly Slater and Ryan Giggs attribute the longevity of their careers and lack of injury due to yoga. (Which is stretching). On the other side of the argument a lot of ballet dancers appear to be predisposed to injury in later life. Could this be due to the time spent static stretching? (as discussed above). 

Life is movement, Movement is life

In conclusion, overall I would disagree with the statement “Stretching doesn’t prevent injury”. For me it is clear through experience of working with everybody from professional athletes to professional scaffolders that life is more than science. Life is movement and movement is life. Stretching is improving and enhancing movement patterns. The benefits people gain from a yoga session are so often in the mind as well as the body. The answer I believe is to combine length with strength. (‘Stretch Strength”) We should be activating key muscle groups, we should be strengthening and we should be stretching. Of course It’s of course all down to the individual, the type of stretching and how it’s used. I would suggest that stretching does improve range of movement. It does improve performance and it does decrease likelihood of injury. ’Stretching does prevent injury’. 

Note - I’ve written this with experience rather than new research. I would love to read more studies on the subject if anyone has any available it would be much appreciated. I would love to also hear the counter arguments to anything I have posited above. I’m still learning in this subject and would love to know more. E mail hello@bayfitness.co.uk or comment on my post on Instagram or on this very Blog. Thankyou I wish you all Length, strength, and happiness! 

Rebecca Cardew